What Does the Term Quantum Meruit Mean in the Civil Context?
Quantum meruit is a Latin phrase meaning "what one has earned." Black’s Law Dictionary says it means, "as much as he deserved". It is an expression that describes the extent of liability on a contract implied by law. It is an equitable doctrine, based on the concept that one who benefits by the labour and material of another should not be unjustly enriched thereby. The law implies a promise to pay a reasonable amount for the labour and material furnished, even absent a specific contract.
Quantum meruit leads to payment in proportion to the amount of work done. One cannot claim performance from another unless he or she has performed his obligation in full; but in certain cases, a person who performed some work under a contract can claim remuneration for the work that he has already done. The right to claim on a quantum meruit basis does not arise out of the contract as of right. Instead, it is a claim based on a quasi-contractual obligation that is implied by the circumstances and arises only when the actual contract is discharged. Cases of quantum meruit often arise when there is no verbal or written contract, but it is understood that one should get what he or she deserves. For example, if a contractor works for a couple, the couple is bound to pay a reasonable amount to him. If they fail to pay the contractor, then he may make a claim in quantum meruit.
Unjust enrichment is better known in the construction industry by the term quantum meruit, but the terms are not synonymous. Quantum meruit is the award based on a claim based on unjust enrichment. Quantum meruit is to unjust enrichment what damages are to breach of contract or tort. An award of quantum meruit compensates unjust enrichment, while an award of damages compensates a breach of contract or a tort. Damages and quantum meruit can sometimes be equal in amount, but since they are calculated differently this is just a coincidence.
Unjust enrichment is frequently resorted to in the family law context in, for instance, disputes between unmarried couples over a home.