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The fundamental issue with third-party beneficiaries gets to this: can a person who is not a party to a contract sue to enforce its terms?
The general rule is this: persons not a party to a contract cannot enforce its terms; they are said to lack privityThe relationship of the immediate parties to a contract, a “private” relationship, as between retailer and customer., a private, face-to-face relationship with the contracting parties. But if the persons are intended to benefit from the performance of a contract between others, then they can enforce it: they are intended beneficiaries.
In the vocabulary of the Restatement, a third person whom the parties to the contract intend to benefit is an intended beneficiaryA person not a party to a contract who was intended to benefit from it and who may sue to enforce its terms.—that is, one who is entitled under the law of contracts to assert a right arising from a contract to which he or she is not a party. There are two types of intended beneficiaries.
A creditor beneficiaryOne whom the party paying for the other’s performance intends to benefit as payment for a debt or obligation. is one to whom the promisor agrees to pay a debt of the promisee. For example, a father is bound by law to support his child. If the child’s uncle (the promisor) contracts with the father (the promisee) to furnish support for the child, the child is a creditor beneficiary and could sue the uncle. Or again, suppose Customer pays Ace Dealer for a new car, and Ace delegates the duty of delivery to Beta Dealer. Ace is now a debtor: he owes Customer something: a car. Customer is a creditor; she is owed something: a car. When Beta performs under his delegated contract with Ace, Beta is discharging the debt Ace owes to Customer. Customer is a creditor beneficiary of Dealers’ contract and could sue either one for nondelivery. She could sue Ace because she made a contract with him, and she could sue Beta because—again—she was intended to benefit from the performance of Dealers’ agreement.
The second type of intended beneficiary is a donee beneficiaryA person not a party to a contract who is intended, as a gift, to benefit from its performance.. When the promisee is not indebted to the third person but intends for him or her to have the benefit of the promisor’s performance, the third person is a donee beneficiary (and the promise is sometimes called a gift promise). For example, an insurance company (the promisor) promises to its policyholder (the promisee), in return for a premium, to pay $100,000 to his wife on his death; this makes the wife a donee beneficiary (see Figure 14.1 "Assignment of Rights"). The wife could sue to enforce the contract although she was not a party to it. Or if Able makes a contract with Woodsman for the latter to cut the trees in Able’s backyard as a Christmas gift to Able’s uphill Neighbor (so that Neighbor will have a view), Neighbor could sue Woodsman for breach of the contract.
If a person is not an intended beneficiary—not a creditor or donee beneficiary—then he or she is said to be only an incidental beneficiaryA person not a party to a contract who benefits from its performance but was not intended to specifically., and that person has no rights. So if Able makes the contract with Woodsman not to benefit Neighbor but for Able’s own benefit, the fact that the tree removal would benefit Neighbor does not make Neighbor an intended beneficiary.
The beneficiary’s rights are always limited by the terms of the contract. A failure by the promisee to perform his part of the bargain will terminate the beneficiary’s rights if the promisee’s lapse terminates his own rights, absent language in the contract to the contrary. If Able makes the contract as a gift to Neighbor but doesn’t make the required down payment to Woodsman, Neighbor’s claim fails. In a suit by the beneficiary, the promisor may avail himself of any defense he could have asserted against the promisee. Woodsman may defend himself against Neighbor’s claim that Woodsman did not do the whole job by showing that Able didn’t make full payment for the work.
Conferring rights on an intended beneficiary is relatively simple. Whether his rights can be modified or extinguished by subsequent agreement of the promisor and promisee is a more troublesome issue. The general rule is that the beneficiary’s rights may be altered as long as there has been no vesting of rightsThe time at which the benefit of a contract is fixed in the beneficiary. (the rights have not taken effect). The time at which the beneficiary’s rights vest differs among jurisdictions: some say immediately, some say when the beneficiary assents to the receipt of the contract right, some say the beneficiary’s rights don’t vest until she has detrimentally relied on the right. The Restatement says that unless the contract provides that its terms cannot be changed without the beneficiary’s consent, the parties may change or rescind the benefit unless the beneficiary has sued on the promise, has detrimentally relied, or has assented to the promise at the request of one of the parties.Restatement (Second) of Contracts, Section 311. Some contracts provide that the benefit never vests; for example, standard insurance policies today reserve to the insured the right to substitute beneficiaries, to borrow against the policy, to assign it, and to surrender it for cash.
The general rule is that members of the public are only incidental beneficiaries of contracts made by the government with a contractor to do public works. It is not illogical to see a contract between the government and a company pledged to perform a service on behalf of the public as one creating rights in particular members of the public, but the consequences of such a view could be extremely costly because everyone has some interest in public works and government services.
A restaurant chain, hearing that the county was planning to build a bridge that would reroute commuter traffic, might decide to open a restaurant on one side of the bridge; if it let contracts for construction only to discover that the bridge was to be delayed or canceled, could it sue the county’s contractor? In general, the answer is that it cannot. A promisor under contract to the government is not liable for the consequential damages to a member of the public arising from its failure to perform (or from a faulty performance) unless the agreement specifically calls for such liability or unless the promisee (the government) would itself be liable and a suit directly against the promisor would be consistent with the contract terms and public policy. When the government retains control over litigation or settlement of claims, or when it is easy for the public to insure itself against loss, or when the number and amount of claims would be excessive, the courts are less likely to declare individuals to be intended beneficiaries. But the service to be provided can be so tailored to the needs of particular persons that it makes sense to view them as intended beneficiaries—in the case, for example, of a service station licensed to perform emergency road repairs, as in Section 14.4.3 "Third party Beneficiaries and Foreseeable Damages", Kornblut v. Chevron Oil Co.
Generally, a person who is not a party to a contract cannot sue to enforce its terms. The exception is if the person is an intended beneficiary, either a creditor beneficiary or a donee beneficiary. Such third parties can enforce the contract made by others but only get such rights as the contract provides, and beneficiaries are subject to defenses that could be made against their benefactor.
The general rule is that members of the public are not intended beneficiaries of contracts made by the government, but only incidental beneficiaries.