Stilk v Myrick (1809) 2 Camp. 317

Key point

  • A promise to pay more for the performance of an existing contractual obligation is not binding for want of consideration

Facts

  • C, a seaman contracted with D, the shipmaster, to sail to the Baltic and back at the wage of $5/mth
  • Two of the crew later deserted and D promised the crew that he will divide the wages of the deserters among them if they fulfilled the deserters’ duties
  • After arriving home D refused to pay the extra wages, C sued for breach of contract

Held (Court of King’s Bench)

  • Claim dismissed
  • There was no consideration for the promise to give extra pay for those who remained on the ship

Lord Ellenborough

  • The agreement for extra wages is void not for public policy but want of consideration
  • Under the original contract the sailors were bound to do all they could to bring the ship to safety in cases of emergency such a desertions

Commentary

  • Even though Lord Ellenborough stressed the contrary, it is likely that he was influenced by the public policy consideration that awarding Cs would risk crew members blackmailing captains into giving them more money by refusing to perform their duties while at sea
  • This decision would be different if it was made in modern times since the doctrine of economic duress would make it more difficult for blackmail to be enforced
  • Today, a promise to pay more for the performance of existing contractual duties can be enforced if it confers a “practical benefit” pursuant to Williams v Roffey