“The Handicap Spot” – Engagement Gifts

Jerry, George, Kramer, and Elaine all pitch in to buy The Drake and The Drakette a big screen TV as a gift for their engagement. But after the Drake and Drakette break up, the gang wants to get the TV back. Do they have a case?

Editor’s Note: This post analyzes gifts being given by third parties, i.e. friends and family of the happy couple. This analysis does not apply to gifts given between the two people getting engaged.

As it turns out, there are three legal theories they could use to try and win back the T.V. George, Jerry, and Elaine each express one of these principles in the video below, starting at 1:00. Let’s discuss.

Elaine first makes the case for why they should get the TV back, saying “well, she can’t keep it, it’s not fair, that’s our TV!” Elaine is making a case of unjust enrichment, that it is simply unfair for the Drakette to keep the television. It is an equitable theory, and does not require either party to have intended to have done something wrong. All that Elaine would have to show is that it would be unjust for the Drakette to keep the television. However, before applying this doctrine, courts do typically look to the larger picture at hand and the behavior of the parties. Although bad behavior on the part of the donee is not required for a finding of unjust enrichment, it is still taken into account. Typically, this would involve one party preying on the other party’s emotions, trust, or confidence. Had The Drakes done something unethical in inducing Elaine to give an engagement gift, then a court might apply this doctrine. But here, the Drake and Drakette didn’t really do anything wrong, they just broke up. Therefore, while it seems unlikely that a court would apply unjust enrichment, it is all but guaranteed that Elaine would render a judgment of “dislike the Drake!”

Next up is Jerry, who makes the argument for fraud. As he says, “maybe the whole thing was a scam. Anybody can just get engaged and get presents and just keep them all. Maybe they’re on their way to Chicago tomorrow to do the whole thing all over again.” Besides for requiring intent on the part of the donee to deceive, a critical distinction between fraud and unjust enrichment is the type of award the court can grant. A finding of unjust enrichment usually results in just returning the gift, but a finding of fraud could result in the court awarding Jerry more than the value of the gift! The problem is that there is zero evidence that The Drakes were acting fraudulently in their engagement just to manipulate people into giving them gifts. If Jerry could prove that the whole engagement was made up, then a court would make The Drakes return the television and maybe more. But since Jerry cannot prove that, he will have to settle for a finding of “hate the Drake!”

Last up is George, who will argue that the gift was given on the condition that The Drakes actually get married. “It’s not hers, it’s theirs. Once there’s no theirs there’s no hers, it should be ours.” George could compare his situation to a jilted groom trying to reclaim his engagement ring after an engagement is broken off. There, courts will typically allow him to get back the ring even if it was only implicitly conditioned on the two parties getting married. This is almost exactly what George is attempting to argue. He says explicitly: “The engagement is off, we get the TV back.”  But if George would try to proceed on this theory, a court would probably draw a distinction between his case and the case of an engagement ring. Whereas an engagement ring is either explicitly or implicitly given on the condition of marriage, here the television was given specifically in honor of the engagement itself, and not in the expectation of an upcoming marriage. As Elaine says in reference to George asking why they need to give a gift, “of course you do, it’s an engagement party.” George, Jerry, Kramer and Elaine are giving The Drakes the T.V. in honor of the engagement itself and the party in celebration. Not on condition that The Drakes will actually get married.

What Jerry, George, and Elaine could have done is explicitly say to the Drakes that they are giving them the big screen TV on the condition that they actually get married. Better yet, they could turn the entire transaction into a contract by using the upcoming nuptials as consideration for the TV (see “The Puffy Shirt” for a primer on contracts and consideration). But with this kind of legal thinking permeating throughout normal personal interactions, The Drake won’t be the only one everyone hates.

I told you the Drake was bad. I hate the Drake!

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