Can you sue for illegal profits?

This is kinda a strange question, and purely hypothetical, but if you enter into an agreement with another party that is illegal and you keep your end of the bargain while the other party does not, do you have any actual legal standing to sue for recovery?

To use a hypothetical example, it’s illegal to sell a kidney. A wealthy man who needs a transplant finds a willing donor who agrees to give him one for very high amount, but gets half in advance. After the fact, the recipient decides not to pay the remainder. Can the donor sue or seek legal recourse, even if it might mean jail time for himself?

The reason I ask is, many years ago, I recall being told that you in fact could seek damages in such a case, but you had to disclose to the courts in full what the illegal activity was and, if it was a serious charge, be punished appropriatly. It never made sense to me, though. Seemed like the illegal act would negate any contract, real or implied.

No you can’t. And it reminds me of the guy in Toronto (sorry, I don’t have a cite) who took a bag of icing sugar to the police saying he was ripped off, and wanted coke. He was arrested. It was on a ‘dumb criminals’ type of show.

To simplify greatly, to have a valid, enforceable contract, one must have:

Consideration–that is, something exchanged for something else. (Although consideration can include such things as not doing what you would have otherwise done).

Offer: roughly, one of the parties must have volunteered or suggested in some fashion that there be an agreement.

Acceptance: by word or deed, the other party must have indicated it was responding positively to the offer, and wasn’t doing so under duress, or while being misled as to what they were agreeing about.

Legal capacity: you can’t enforce the contract if the other person was too impaired to understand the consequences of what they were doing, or if it is otherwise unfair to enforce their word because of their situation; the law generally protects drunks, the feeble-minded, the plain crazy and (generally) minors.

**Legality of subject matter **: as noted above, you can’t sue successfully to enforce an illegal drug transaction.

Thanks, that’s more or less what I thought, but with the legal system sometimes seeming incomprehesible to a layman like myself, I just wanted to be sure it wasn’t completely weird. :slight_smile:

Here’s a real example of how illegal activity breaks a contract. Say you legally buy something from Joe, who legally bought it from Frank, who stole it from Jim. You would have to return it, and try and get your money from Joe who would try and get his money from Frank, who would try and get it from Jim. But if you couldn’t, you would still lose the item, as possession is 9/10 of the law, but ownership is the other 1/10.

Svt4Him: not necessarily–at least not in the United States.

The general rule under the Uniform Commercial Code is that that one gets to keep the stolen good provided it is bought in good faith from someone who ordinarily deals in such goods.


1.) Owner takes his watch to Dealer to have it repaired. Dealer then sells it mistakenly to Buyer who buys in good faith. Buyer gets to keep watch, and Owner gets to sue Dealer for damages.

2.) Owner has watch stolen. Thief sells watch to Dealer who buys in good faith. Dealer sells it to Buyer. Buyer gets to keep watch. Owner gets to sue Thief for damages. Dealer can sue to recover his money too.

3.) Owner takes his watch to Dealer to have it repaired. Dealer knowingly sells watch to Buyer. Buyer gets to keep watch provided he if he bought it in good faith, and Owner sues Dealer for damages.

4.) Owner takes his watch to Dealer to be repaired. Dealer sells it to Buyer, with Buyer knowing it is “hot”. Buyer must give watch back to Owner.

5.) Thief steals watch from Owner. Thief sells watch to Buyer is a “psssst: buddy” transaction in an alley. Buyer must give watch back to Owner, even if he didn’t realize watch was stolen.

Slpitsler: Are you sure about this sequence? It seems to be pretty unfair to the original property owner, and an area that’s ripe for fraud by a clever criminal.

For example, if someone was to steal a family heirloom from me, something with intrinsic value (like jewlery), but only gets caught after selling it to a reputable dealer, who himself has sold it by then, it would be essentially lost forever. Even if I found out who bought it from the dealer, I would have no legal way to recover the actual item. Or, for that matter, the dollar value of that item from anyone but the theif.

Also, someone looking to aquire a specific item could seemingly do so this way. Basically, pay someone to steal an item with instructions to sell it to a specific dealer who knows nothing of the theft. Then, go to the dealer and purchase it. Assuming that the original crook is not caught or at least doesn’t implicate you, you’re free and clear with the item.

Eirik: yep, I’m sure. And yeah, I’m a lawyer.

And no, it doesn’t seem fair. We decided as a society, though, a long time ago, that it was necessary to afford protections to people who deal in good faith with pawnbrokers, junk shops, used car dealers, etc., in order to keep honest people willing to deal with pawnbrokers, junk shops, used car dealers, etc.

As for the scenario you outline, it doesn’t, really, seem very likely. If a person pays someone to steal a specific object for him, it probably wouldn’t make much sense for him to bother to go through the charade of going through a third party–although, I guess, he might fear that the item might be identified as stolen once in his possession, and he would want a plausible explanation for how he got it. Even so, all we are essentially saying is that if a person is a thief, (and a person conspiring with another to have something stolen essentially is), they have to be caught in order to be made to suffer.

Bear in mind that the purpose of having laws is not to assure perfect justice in every instance; it wouldn’t be practical to design and enforce such a system, and just what is absolutely just is something which may be known only to God anyway. The purpose of having laws is to provide a consistent system for ordering people’s affairs which provides fair and practical results most of the time in the long run.

With the exception of the State of Louisiana, every state in the U.S. has adopted the Uniform Commercial Code in whole or substantial part as the basis for its law of contracts. The relevent section is UCC Sec. 2-403(2).

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Please someone, find a cite for me on these:
#1 Petty thief breaks into a house under construction, at night, with the intention of stealing the newly installed appliances. There is no light available in the house and thief has no flashlight. Staircase from first floor to basement has yet to be installed. Thief falls to basement floor (concrete) suffering severe injuries, sues (and wins a huge award from) building contractor because, under OSHA requirements, the opening he fell through should have been barricaded until the stairway was completed.

#2 Petty thief #1’s brother breaks into the house of a family away on vacation and begins to take valuables from the house and “stash” them in the garage. When he’s done, he goes into the garage, pulling the door to the house closed behind him. This door locks. He then finds that the garage vehicle door is operated by an old style electrical opener which cannot be activated without the remote and he cannot get back into the house. The garage has no windows. A week later, the family returns, opens the vehicle door with the “clicker” and finds thief near death. (I would have died from embarrassment for not being able to figure out a way to escape.) Thief sues (and wins a huge award from )owners for false imprisonment and for failing to have an internal manual garage door release (required by local ordinance).
[/sorta hijack]

The law will not adjudicate a contract if the subject of that contract is illegal. Such a contract is null and void on its face. Many times contracts are constructed and contain provisions that may later be deemed illegal or unenforceable. Such provisions can sometimes serve to void a contract altogether, however, most large contracts contain a provision that essentially states: If any provision be found by a court of law to be unenforceable, as long as said provision is not material to the purpose and performance of the contract, that provision shall be removed and the remainder of the contract executed.

As far as buying stolen goods go, you get to keep what you buy IF you paid a fair price to a legitimate seller. In other words, you have to have reason to believe that you are buying goods legally. So, if the neighborhood junkie offers to sell you a big-screen TV for $100, you’ll lose the TV and your money. However, if you purchase the same big screen TV from your local hock shop or electronics store for $1,300, you will probably get to keep it.