Trend Watch

The Legal Definition of Assumpsit

"Mr. Kennedy, do you own a dictionary?"

When Representative Joseph Kennedy III introduced Senator Elizabeth Warren on the first night of the Democratic National Convention, he told an anecdote that sent many Americans scrambling for their dictionaries:

First day of law school. First class. The goal: escape unscathed. Three seconds in, I get the first question:

“Mr. Kennedy, what is the definition of assumpsit?”
“Mr. Kennedy, you realize assumpsit was the first word in your reading?”
“Yes. I circled it because I didn’t know what it meant.”
“Mr. Kennedy, do you own a dictionary? That’s what people use when they don’t know a word.”
I never showed up unprepared for Professor Elizabeth Warren again.
—Joseph P. Kennedy III, as quoted in The Boston Globe, 26 July 2016

While Kennedy successfully whetted the public's curiosity about the meaning of assumpsit, he never actually explained what it meant, causing his audience to take his advice and look it up. Lookups for assumpsit skyrocketed in the minutes after Kennedy's story; the following morning, lookups were still high at an astonishing 92,000% increase over the previous month's average.

Legally, an assumpsit is defined as an express or implied promise or contract or quasi contract, the breach of which may be grounds for a suit, or a common-law action that may be brought for such a breach. Assumpsit comes from the Latin for "he undertook," and originated in the 14th century as a form of recovery for the negligent performance of an undertaking. It gradually came to cover the many kinds of agreement called for by the expansion of commerce and technology.

The concept of assumpsit was first introduced in cases in which the defendant damaged goods entrusted to him by the plaintiff—e.g., where the defendant had taken the plaintiff’s horse in order to transport it across a river and negligently caused the ferry to overturn so that the horse drowned.

Assumpsit did not become a contractual remedy in the modern sense until two modifications occurred: (1) the emphasis shifted from the negligent act of the defendant to the defendant’s failure to keep his promise; and (2) the action was made available as a remedy in situations where the defendant did something improperly or neglected to do something he had promised to do.

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