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In general, illegal contracts are unenforceable. The courts must grapple with two types of illegalities: (1) statutory violations and (2) violations of public policy not expressly declared unlawful by statute. The former include gambling contracts, contracts with unlicensed professionals, and Sunday contracts.
Contracts that violate public policy include many types of covenants not to compete. No general rule for determining their legality can be given, except to say that the more rigid their restrictions against working or competing, the less likely they will withstand judicial scrutiny. Other types of agreements that may violate public policy and hence are unenforceable include provisions that waive tort liability and contracts that interfere with family relationships.
The exceptions to the rule that illegal agreements will not be enforced and that courts leave the parties where they are generally involve situations where the hands-off approach would lead to an unfair result: where the parties are not equally at fault, where one is excusably ignorant or withdraws before performance, or where one is protected by a statute. A court may sometimes divide a contract, enforcing the legal part and not the illegal part.
Albert Bennett, an amateur cyclist, entered a bicycle race sponsored by the United States Cycling Federation. He signed a release exculpating the federation for liability: “I further understand that serious accidents occasionally occur during bicycle racing and that participants in bicycle racing occasionally sustain mortal or serious personal injuries, and/or property damage, as a consequence thereof. Knowing the risks of bicycle racing, nevertheless I hereby agree to assume those risks and to release and hold harmless all the persons or entities mentioned above who (through negligence or carelessness) might otherwise be liable to me (or my heirs or assigns) for damages.”
During the race, Bennett was hit by an automobile that had been allowed on the otherwise blocked-off street by agents of the defendant. Bennett sued; the trial court dismissed the case on summary judgment. Bennett appealed. What was the decision on appeal?
Ramses owned an industrial supply business. He contracted to sell the business to Tut. Clause VI of their Agreement of Sale provided as follows: “In further consideration for the purchase, Ramses agrees that he shall not compete, either directly or indirectly, in the same business as is conducted by the corporation in its established territory.”
Two months after the sale, Ramses opened a competing business across the street from the business now owned by Tut, who brought suit, asking the court to close Ramses’s business on the basis of Clause VI. What should the court decide? Why?
Gambling contracts are
In State X, plumbers must purchase a license but do not have to pass an examination. This is an example of
A contract to pay a lobbyist to influence a public official is generally illegal.
Exculpatory clauses are sometimes enforceable when they relieve someone from liability for
An employee’s promise not to compete with the employer after leaving the company