Cutter v Powell – Case Summary

Cutter v Powell

Court of King’s Bench

Citations: (1795) 6 Term Reports 320; 101 ER 573; [1795] EWHC KB J13.


The defendant contracted with a sailor, promising to pay him thirty guineas to provide services as a second mate aboard a ship until it reached Liverpool. This was substantially more money than normal sailor contracts, which tended to pay a smaller sum per week of service. The sailor did his job, but died before the ship reached Liverpool. The sailor’s estate sued for his wages under the contract, or in the alternative under the quantum meruit rule in restitution.

  1. Was the sailor owed his wages under the contract?
  2. Could the sailor claim quantum meruit for part performance?

The court held in favour of the defendant. The contract promised thirty guineas only if the sailor worked the entire voyage, which he did not. The obligation to pay therefore never became live. The contract offered more money if the whole job was completed on the assumption that the sailor would be entitled to nothing if it was not – his estate could not, therefore, rely on quantum meruit.

This Case is Authority For…

Where a contract specifies that one party must perform in full before they are entitled to payment, they cannot claim any payment if their performance is incomplete. The obligation to pay is contingent on full performance.

Where there is a valid contract, the parties must abide by it. A party performing services does not have the option of abandoning the contract and claiming quantum meruit instead.


The rule in this case has been modified to an extent by the ‘substantial performance‘ rule in cases like Bolton v Mahadeva [1972] 1 WLR 1009.