An obligation that the law creates in the absence of an agreement between the parties. It is invoked by the courts where UNJUST ENRICHMENT, which occurs when a person retains money or benefits that in all fairness belong to another, would exist without judicial relief.
A quasi contract is a contract that exists by order of a court, not by agreement of the parties. Courts create quasi contracts to avoid the unjust enrichment of a party in a dispute over payment for a good or service. In some cases a party who has suffered a loss in a business relationship may not be able to recover for the loss without evidence of a contract or some legally recognized agreement. To avoid this unjust result, courts create a fictitious agreement where no legally enforceable agreement exists.
To illustrate, assume that a homebuilder has built a house on Alicia's property. However, the homebuilder signed a contract with Bobby, who claimed to be Alicia's agent but, in fact, was not. Although there is no binding contract between Alicia and the homebuilder, most courts would allow the homebuilder to recover the cost of the services and materials from Alicia to avoid an unjust result. A court would accomplish this by creating a fictitious agreement between the homebuilder and Alicia and holding Alicia responsible for the cost of the builder's services and materials.
Quasi contracts sometimes are called implied-in-law contracts to distinguish them from implied-in-fact contracts. An implied-in-law contract is one that at least one of the parties did not intend to create but that should, in all fairness, be created by a court. An implied-in-fact contract is simply an unwritten, nonexplicit contract that courts treat as an express written contract because the words and actions of the parties reflect a consensual transaction. The difference is subtle but not without practical effect.
One notable difference between the two implied contracts is that courts have no jurisdiction over quasi-contract claims against the federal government. Under the doctrine of SOVEREIGN IMMUNITY, the federal government cannot be sued without its consent. An implied-in-fact contract arises from an actual agreement that was not memorialized in writing, and if an agent of the government entered into an agreement, a court could find consent to suit on the part of the government. A quasi-contract claim, by contrast, does not allege that an agreement existed, only that one should be imposed by the court to avoid an unjust result. Because a quasi-contract claim does not allege any consent on the part of the government, it would fail under the doctrine of sovereign IMMUNITY.
A quasi contract may afford less recovery than an implied-in-fact contract. A contract implied in fact will construct the whole agreement as the parties intended, so the party seeking the creation of an implied contract may be entitled to expected profits as well as the cost of labor and materials. A quasi contract will be created only to the extent necessary to prevent unjust enrichment. As one court has put it, contracts implied in law are "merely remedies granted by the court to enforce equitable or moral obligations in spite of the lack of assent of the party to be charged" (Gray v. Rankin, 721 F. Supp 115 [S.D. Miss. 1989]). The amount of recovery for an implied-in-law contract usually is limited to the cost of labor and materials because it would be unfair to force a person who did not intend to enter into a contract to pay for profits.
Quasi contracts are made possible by the doctrine of QUANTUM MERUIT (Latin for "as much as is deserved"), which allows courts to imply a contract where none exists. Quantum meruit includes implied-in-fact contracts as well as quasi contracts. Courts also use the term quantum meruit to describe the process of determining how much money the charging party may recover in an implied contract.
Knapp, Charles L., and Nathan M. Crystal. 1987. Problems in Contract Law: Cases and Materials. 2d ed. Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown.
Woodward, Frederic Campbell. 1987. The Law of Quasi Contracts. Littleton, Colo.: F.B. Rothman.