The Devil and Homer Simpson

This month’s post was inspired by this note from Jamas, who writes:

In Treehouse of Horror IV, the segment ‘The Devil and Homer Simpson‘ has Homer give his soul to the Devil in return for a doughnut. After finally eating the doughnut, the Devil turns up to get the soul, but Marge convinces him to have a trial. At the trial, Marge shows a prior note by Homer giving his soul to Marge, and thus he doesn’t own it to sell to the Devil…

(Although this story is from The Simpsons television show, there have been Simpsons comics almost as long as the show has been around, so we’ll allow it.)

The story is an homage to The Devil and Daniel Webster, a classic short story that has even been mentioned in a court case, United States ex rel. Mayo v. Satan and His Staff, 54 F.R.D. 282 (W.D.Pa. 1971).  Over at Law and the Multiverse we’ve previously considered deals with the Devil on the show Reaper and the Ghost Rider movie.  In this case we have three major issues.  First, did Homer actually give Marge his soul or merely an interest in it?  Second, would Marge’s plan work?  Third, what recourse does the Devil have?

I. Outright Sale or Life Estate?

In the story it is explained that Homer pledged his soul to Marge in exchange for marrying him.  This could be seen as a sale, but presumably Marge did not take possession of Homer’s soul at the time.  It is possible to transfer ownership of a thing without also transferring possession, and so it could have been a sale.

An alternative is that Homer sold Marge a remainder interest in his soul, retaining a life estate for himself.  Life estates are more common in real estate, particularly wills (e.g. giving a life estate to one child, leaving the remainder to another child and his or her descendants), but they can apply to personal property as well.

It may not matter whether Homer sold his soul outright or merely a remainder interest.  The result is basically the same either way.

II. You Can’t Sell What You Don’t Have

Obviously Homer can’t sell his soul to the Devil if he’s already sold it to Marge.  But if he’s only sold a remainder interest, then he could theoretically sell his life estate to the Devil.  The problem is that it appears that turning over his soul would kill Homer, which would end the life estate, leaving the Devil with nothing.  So either way the Devil can’t get Homer’s soul.  But that doesn’t mean he has to walk away empty-handed.

III. Remedy for the Devil

Now that the Devil has been denied his soul, he could sue Homer for either fraud or breach of contract.  Since it appears that Homer had forgotten about his prior deal with Marge, he isn’t liable for fraud.  But he is liable for breach of contract.  He promised to deliver his soul to the Devil in exchange for a doughnut and was unable to do so because he didn’t have a soul to give.

Since the Devil is the non-breaching party (i.e. he kept up his end of the bargain) and Homer has received a benefit, the Devil could be eligible for restitution.  In other words, Homer would owe the Devil a doughnut.

There may also be other damages.  First, the Devil may have expectation damages, which is the value of what he would have gotten out of the deal (i.e. Homer’s soul).  Unfortunately, it’s pretty hard to put a dollar value on a soul, so a court might only award nominal damages (typically one dollar).  Second, there may be consequential damages, such as the cost of finding a replacement soul.  I’m not sure how you’d put a dollar value on the Devil’s time and effort, however.  Third, there may be damages based on the Devil’s reliance on the deal.  For example, he may have foregone trying to get other souls.  Again, though, it’s hard to figure out how to put a value on those damages.

It could be that a lot of people have sold their souls to the Devil for money, in which case the Devil might actually be able to present good evidence of the dollar value of a soul.  With damages established he might win a significant award, but it might prove difficult to collect.  While not exactly judgment proof, the Simpsons aren’t rich, either.  But hey, at least he could get his doughnut back.