GASTONIA PERSONNEL CORP. v. ROGERS
276 N.C. 279, 172 S.E.2d 19 (1970)
Defendant had graduated from high school in 1966. On May 29, 1968, he was nineteen Years old, emancipated and married. He needed only "one quarter or 22 hours" for completion of the courses required at Gaston Tech for an A.S. degree in civil engineering. His wife was employed as a computer programmer at First Federal Savings and Loan. He and she were living in a rented apartment. They were expecting a baby in September. Defendant had to quit school and go to work.
For assistance in obtaining suitable employment, defendant went to the office of plaintiff, an employment agency, on May 29, 1968. After talking with Maurine Finley, a personnel counselor, defendant signed a contract containing, inter alia, the following: "If I ACCEPT employment offered me by an employer as a result of a lead (verbal or otherwise) from you within twelve (12) months of such lead even though it may not be the position originally discussed with you, I will be obligated to pay you as per the terms of the contract." Under the contract, defendant was free to continue his own quest for employment. He was to become obligated to plaintiff only if he accepted employment from an employer to whom he was referred by plaintiff.
After making several telephone calls to employers who might need defendant's services as a draftsman, Mrs. Finley called Spratt-Seaver, Inc., in Charlotte North Carolina. It was stipulated that defendant, as a result of his conversation with Mrs. Finley, went to Charlotte, was interviewed by Spratt-Seaver, Inc., and was employed by that company on June 6, 1968, at an annual salary of $4,784.00. The contract provided that defendant would pay plaintiff a service charge of $295.00 if the starting annual salary of
Accepted employment was as much as $4,680.00.
Prior to his contract with plaintiff, defendant had unsuccessfully sought employment with two other companies.
Plaintiff sued to recover a service charge of $295.00. In his answer, defendant admitted he had paid nothing to plaintiff; alleged he was not indebted to plaintiff in any amount; and, as a further answer and defense, pleaded his infancy. [The lower court granted defendant's motion to dismiss the case.]
The sole question presented is whether plaintiff offered evidence sufficient to withstand defendant's motion for nonsuit.
Under the common law, persons, whether male or female, are classified and referred to as infants until they attain the age of twenty-one years.
"By the fifteenth century it seems to have been well settled that an infant's bargain was in general void at his election (that is voidable), and also that he was liable for necessaries." 2 Williston, Contracts 5 223 (3rd ed. 1959).
An early commentary on the common law, after the general statement that contracts made by persons (infants) before attaining the age of twenty-one "may be avoided," sets forth "some exceptions out of this generality," to wit: "An'znfant may bind himselfe to pay for his necessary meat, drinke, apparell, necessary physicke, and such other necessaries, and likewise for his good teaching or instruction, whereby he may profit himselfe afterwards." (Our italics.) Coke on Littleton, 13th ed. (1788), p. 172. The italicized portion of this excerpt from Coke on Littleton was quoted by Pearson, J. (later C. J.), in Freeman v. Bridger, 49 N.C. 1 (1856). It appears also in later decisions of this Court. If the infant married, "necessaries" included necessary food and clothing for his wife and child.
In accordance with this ancient rule of the common law, this Court has held an infant's contract, unless for "necessaries" or unless authorized by statute, is voidable by the infant, at his election, and may be disaffirmed during infancy or upon attaining the age of twenty-one.
This statement commands respect and approval: "Society has a moral obligation to protect the interests of infants from overreaching adults. But this protection must not become a straightjacket, stifling the economic and social advancement of infants who have the need and maturity to contract. Nor should infants be allowed to turn that protective legal shield into a weapon to wield against fair-dealing adults. It is in the interest of society to have its members contribute actively to the general economic and social welfare, if this can be accomplished consistently with the protection of those persons unable to protect themselves in the market place." Comment, Infants' Contractual Disabilities: Do Modem Sociological and Economic Trends Demand a Change in the Law? 41 Indiana Law Journal 140 et seq. (1965).
In general, our prior decisions are to the effect that the "necessaries" of an infant, his wife and child, include only such necessities of life as
food, clothing, shelter, medical attention, etc. In our view, the concept of "necessaries" should be enlarged to include such articles of property and such services as are reasonably necessary to enable the infant to earn the money required to provide the necessities of life for himself and those who are legally dependent upon him.
The evidence before us tends to show that defendant, when he contracted with plaintiff, was nineteen years of age, emancipated, married, a high school graduate, within "a quarter or 22 hours" of obtaining his degree in applied science, and capable of holding a job at a starting annual salary of
$4,784.00. To hold, as a matter of law, that such a person cannot obligate himself to pay for services rendered him in obtaining employment suitable to his ability, education and specialized training, enabling him to provide the necessities of life for
himself, his wife and his expected child, would place him and others similarly situated under a serious economic handicap.
In the effort to protect "older minors" from improvident or unfair contracts, the law
should not deny to them the opportunity and right to obligate themselves for articles of property or services which are reasonably necessary to enable them to provide for the proper support of themselves and their dependents. The minor should be held liable for the reasonable value of articles of property or services received pursuant to such contract.
Applying the foregoing legal principles, which modify pro tanto the ancieni rule of the common law, we hold that the evidence offered by plaintiff was sufficient for submission to the jury for its determination of issues substantially as indicated below. [The lower court judgment is reversed.]
To establish liability, plaintiff must satisfy the jury by the greater weight of the evidence that defendant's contract with plaintiff was an appropriate and reasonable means for defendant to obtain suitable employment. If this issue is answered in plaintiff's favor, plaintiff must then establish by the greater weight of the evidence the reasonable value of the services received by defendant pursuant to the contract. Thus, plaintiff's recovery, if any, cannot exceed the reasonable value of its services to defendant.