Enforceability of Life Debts

Chewbacca: the Wookiee; the Myth; the Legend. He is the ultimate wingman. Loyal, wise, and damn huggable. Chewbacca was with Han Solo because Chewie owed Han a “life debt.” A life debt was a social custom that stated that if someone had saved a person’s life, then that person owed the one who had saved him or her something in return. Wookieepedia, Life Debt.

Courts would have an extremely difficult time enforcing a “life debt” as a contractual obligation. Contracts require terms with “reasonable certainty.” Restat 2d of Contracts, § 33(1) (2nd 1981). Contracts that had indefiniteness were considered fatal defects in earlier times. See, John Edward Murray, Jr, Murray on Contracts, Third Edition, Copyright 1990, § 38, page 83. Case law includes examples where someone promised to pay “a fair share” of their profits or where a lumberman agreed to provide logs in quantities deemed “reasonable and economical.” Murray, citing Varney v Ditmars, 217 N.Y. 223 (1916) and Smith v Chickamauga Cedar Co., 263 Ala. 245 (1955).

Modern courts have stated the “law leans against the destruction of contracts for uncertainty” and prefer finding agreements are “sufficiently definite.” Murray, citing In re Sing Chong Co., 1 Haw. App. 236, 239 (1980). However, an agreement to “care for a person” was found to fail for indefiniteness. Murray, citing Almeida v. Almeida, 4 Haw. App. 513 (1983).

The test for whether a contract survives indefiniteness is whether the “terms of a contract are reasonably certain if they provide a basis for determining the existence of a breach and for giving an appropriate remedy.”Restat 2d of Contracts, § 33(2) (2nd 1981).

A life debt potentially can be for an indefinite amount of time, possibly even decades, in order for the debt to be “repaid.” Moreover, Han and Chewbacca going on a series of adventures together (arguably in a partnership with fiduciary duties to each other), lack reasonably certain terms for the scope and duration of the life debt. Chewbacca’s life debt to Han Solo likely would fail for indefiniteness as a contract to “care for a person.” However, a sound legal strategy in cases involving Chewbacca is to let the Wookiee win.