Monday night, in the culmination of Bachelor Pad 3 on ABC, a potential lawsuit was created. On “Bachelor Pad,” specially selected losers from past seasons of “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” are thrown together to live in a mansion for (too) many weeks. Millions of people watch each week to see what happens when alcohol, bikinis, competitions, dates and other adventures are thrown into the mix along the way. Over the course of the season, participants periodically vote out housemates until only two contestants (always a man and a woman) remain. Each participant is competing to be the very last contestant standing, which would entitle him or her to the $250,000 Grand Prize. This season, after weeks of bickering, lying, intrigue, alliances, scheming, promiscuity, and professed if pretended love, the two finalists were Nick Peterson and Rachel Truehart. (Honest.) To separate the victor from the runner-up, the show presents the final pair with its own iteration of the famous game theory, “Prisoner’s Dilemma.” Each finalist is presented with the following choice: agree to split the Grand Prize equally or decide to keep all of the money for him or herself. In a variation on the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma (in which two criminal suspects are separated before being presented with the choice of ratting the other out) the Bachelor Pad finalists are together when the rules are explained and are aware that they will be presented with this choice. If each finalist agrees (in isolation) to split the prize, each walks away with $125,000. If they both decide to keep the money for themselves, neither gets any money, and the Grand Prize is divided amongst the other contestants. But if one decides to keep all of the money and the other agrees to split it, the selfish one gets to keep all of the $250,000, and the other gets no share of the Grand Prize money. According to Rachel, Nick and Rachel agreed in advance that they would (when the time came) choose to split the money. Yet, when the time came, Rachel voted to split, and Nick voted to keep, and he ended up $250,000 richer. If Rachel’s account is true, can Rachel successfully sue Nick for damages?
Each participant surely signed a contract with the show’s producers before even stepping foot in the mansion, and each of their contracts contained some type of acknowledgment that bad stuff can happen on the show, and a covenant or release stating that the participant agrees never to sue the producers or anyone connected with the show. If that language is broad enough to include fellow contestants in the group of people not to be sued, that clause in Rachel’s contract would likely be a complete defense to any suit by Rachel against Nick, even though the two never directly contracted with each other. Nick would have a right to assert the benefits of Rachel’s contractual agreement not to sue him as a fellow participant, because Nick would be considered an intended third party beneficiary of Rachel’s contract with the producers. If no pre-season contract could be successfully invoked, though, did Rachel and Nick have an enforceable contract when they promised each other that they would later vote to split the prize? In certain limited situations (e.g., sale of an interest in land and pre-nuptial agreements), contracts must be in writing to be enforceable. This is not such a situation. But were their oral promises even a “contract”? Black’s Law Dictionary defines a contract as “an agreement between two or more persons which creates an obligation to do or not do a particular thing.” On one level, this was certainly that. But the enforceability of Nick’s promise, and Rachel’s necessary reasonable reliance on it, would be interpreted in the context of the game—basically, she’s been warned this might happen. Alternatively, Rachel might claim that she is entitled to $125,000 under the doctrine of “promissory estoppel,” which requires: (1) an unambiguous promise that is made by one with the intention of inducing the other to rely upon it; (2) reasonable detrimental reliance on that promise; and (3) inequity if the person making the promise were to renege on that promise. In this case, Rachel would say that in reliance on Nick’s promise she, too, agreed to share. However, if she had voted to keep the money all to herself, she would be in the same position she ended up in: no money. So, did she really rely to her detriment on his promise? No. In addition, all the promises would have to be interpreted in the context in which they were made, i.e., a game show that all but requires lying and deception. Even if Rachel could get her case as far as a jury trial, the jurors (despite possible disdain for Nick’s actions) might decide that Rachel’s reliance on his promise was not “reasonable,” and therefore, she would recover nothing. Towards that end, Nick’s attorney would surely argue in closing argument that Rachel only made it to the final by breaking her “pinky swear” agreement with her best friend on the show, Jaclyn, and voting her off. Rachel’s best chance would be to assert an equitable claim for “unjust enrichment” under which one who is unjustly enriched at the expense of another is subject to liability in restitution. Whether a jury would deem Nick’s enrichment to be “unjust,” in the context of the show, and in light of Rachel’s own prior actions on it, is not a given, however, if the commentary on various fan sites such as www.ihategreenbeans.com or www.realitynation.com is any indication. // Michael Racette