By: Emily C. Williams, Esq.
The theory of recovery known unjust enrichment is often used by attorneys in construction litigation actions as an alternative count to claims for breach of contract or for foreclosure of a construction lien. It is not uncommon, however, for unjust enrichment claims to be improperly pled in the complaint, which will often lead to a misguided legal analysis. This, of course, can negatively affect your client’s case at the earliest stage of the dispute.
Unjust enrichment is often referred to as a contract implied in law; however, it is not a contract at all. The theory of unjust enrichment is a legal fiction defined as “an obligation imposed by law to do justice even though it is clear that no promise was ever made or intended.” Tipper v. Great Lakes Chemical Company, 281 So.2d 10, 13 (Fla. 1973). Unlike quantum meruit, unjust enrichment does not require an assent between the parties. Quantum meruit is premised on the expectation of the parties, while unjust enrichment is supported by the interest of society in the prevention of injustice.
One must prove the following elements to recover under the theory of unjust enrichment: 1) lack of an adequate remedy at law; 2) a benefit conferred upon the defendant by the plaintiff coupled with the defendant’s appreciation of the benefit; and 3) acceptance and retention of the benefit under circumstances that make it inequitable for him or her to do so without paying the value of it. Challenge Air Transport, Inc. v. Tranportes Aeros Nacionales, 520 So.2d 323 (Fla. 3d DCA 1988). As this post will reveal, each of these elements present peculiar issues and analytical challenges for the legal practitioner.