Unjust Enrichment: An Alternative Cause of Action When There is Not a Written Contract Between the Parties

What if you did not enter into a written contract with another party, but you gave funds, services, or some other interest to the party and the other party fails to give you anything in return?  If there is no written contract between you and the other party, it may be difficult to prove that the other party breached the contract. However, you may be able to recover under the theory of unjust enrichment. 

The theory of unjust enrichment is based on a contract implied in law. People ex rel. Hartigan v. E & E Hauling, Inc., 153 Ill. 2d 473, 497, 607 N.E. 2d 165, 177 (Ill. 1992). To prevail on the theory of unjust enrichment, a plaintiff must prove that the defendant has unjustly retained a benefit to the plaintiff's detriment, and that defendant's retention of the benefit violates the fundamental principles of justice, equity, and good conscience. HPI Care Services, Inc. v. Mt. Vernon Hospital, 131 Ill.2d 145, 160, 545 N.E.2d 672 (Ill. 1989). To recover under this theory, plaintiffs must show that defendant voluntarily accepted a benefit which would be inequitable for him to retain without payment. Id. (citing Premier Electrical Construction Co. v. La Salle National Bank, 132 Ill. App. 3d 485, 496, 477 N.E. 2d 1249).

"Because unjust enrichment is based on an implied contract, where there is a specific contract which governs the relationship of the parties, the doctrine of unjust enrichment has no application.”  Hartigan, 153 Ill.2d 497.  However, in a lawsuit, a plaintiff may plead unjust enrichment “in the alternative” to a breach of contract action.  One of the reasons that a plaintiff may plead unjust enrichment “in the alternative” is that if the contract is deemed unenforceable by the court, the plaintiff may then proceed on his cause of action of unjust enrichment in the absence of an enforceable contract between the parties.

If you have any questions or require additional information about the theory of unjust enrichment, please contact Lavelle Law, Ltd. at (847) 705-7555.