The duress definition in law generally refers to a situation where someone unlawfully threatens another person with the intention of getting them to do something they normally would not perform. Other words commonly associated with duress include pressure, force, coercion, and undue influence.
Keep in mind that the exact definition of duress will always depend on your jurisdiction. So, it is important to look that up and ensure there are no unique elements that your state requires to prove duress.
Duress can be present in civil situations, but also used as a defense to a crime in criminal law. Some common examples of duress in civil law include the following:
- Telling someone that if they do not sign a contract, they will publicly release humiliating information about them; and
- Threatening harm to another party, someone close to them, or their property if they fail to perform an act— like selling shares in a company or otherwise entering into a legally binding agreement they normally would have avoided.
What is Criminal Duress?
As noted above, the duress meaning in a criminal context differs because it is used as a defense to a crime. Put simply, the defendant in a criminal action will assert that they committed a crime because they were forced into it through violence or the threat of violence. The reasoning behind this defense is that the person no longer possessed free will due to the duress. This causes the person to act in a way they otherwise would have not.
The elements for asserting a defense duress generally include: being in immediate danger of serious harm or death, fear that the harm would be carried out, and no other reasonable action besides committing the crime in order to avoid the harm from occurring.
Some common examples of criminal duress defenses include the following:
- You robbed a store because another person was threatening you with a gun; and
- Threatening harm on a person’s child if they do not commit an illegal act.
Whether a duress defense holds up will depend on the circumstances surrounding the crime. If the danger is not immediate and the person could reasonably have gotten away, it may not be available. If the harm is not realistic, like if it is apparent the weapon is fake and cannot cause harm, then the duress defense may not be available. This is why duress is very fact specific and will differ for each case.
When Does Duress Occur in Contracts?
The biggest area that duress comes into play with civil law is with contracts. In a contract setting, duress applies when someone else uses threats and fear to induce you to enter into a contract, even if you do not find the terms favorable.
Although the word coercion is used often to describe duress, there are some differences between these two legal concepts. As discussed above, duress generally hinges on threats that make someone feel pressured to do something that they would otherwise decide against doing. This focuses on the person’s state of mind at the time of signing the contract.
While coercion is often a term used interchangeably with the threat component of duress, it is a separate action. Coercion focuses on the force used to get someone to do something versus the mindset of the person who is being forced to complete an act. By way of example in a contract setting, say your boss was trying to get you to sign a contract by threatening you with never getting a promotion. Signing the contract because of the fear over not getting a promotion would be considered the duress while the act of threatening you could be viewed as an act of coercion.
What Does it Mean to Sign Something Under Duress?
When it comes to signing contracts under duress, this can invalidate the contract if it is legally challenged. If someone is forced to sign a contract under conditions of duress and then decides not to perform under the contract, that party could raise duress as a defense if a breach of contract action is filed. Since written proof of duress is not always available, this can sometimes be hard to prove.
A person cannot file an independent lawsuit based on duress. On the other hand, to prove duress defense a party generally needs to prove the following:
- There has been a continuous legal contract between the parties or a new contract was entered into recently;
- The defendant threatened to terminate the contract if plaintiff did not do something;
- Plaintiff felt pressured to accept the terms and like there is no other option; and
- Plaintiff agrees to the terms of the contract.
Some factors the courts look at are mental state, bargaining power, time constraints, the presence of any reasonable alternatives, and other mitigating factors that would push a party to feel forced to sign the contract quickly. Also keep in mind that what a party needs to show to prove duress will differ between jurisdictions.
What is Economic Duress and When does it Occur?
Economic duress refers to a situation generally in a commercial contract where a party uses economic or financial threats to force someone into a contract. This is a harder type of duress to prove and courts will analyze the facts very closely. Common factors courts look at include age, education, party relationships, and mental state. There also needs to be no reasonable alternative present than for the party under pressure to accept the terms based on the economic duress.
Some contexts and situations where economic duress may occur include the following:
- Even though a party is at a very large disadvantage in a contract, it will be financially ruined if they do not sign the deal;
- One party uses the fact that the other party is financially struggling to get a discount on payment under an existing contract; or
- Knowing that one party needs a contract to continue for their businesses to survive, the other party refuses to provide goods unless they pay 20% more than the price originally agreed upon.
How Does Duress Affect Consideration in Contracts?
Consideration is the exchange of promises in a contract and is what all contracts are based upon. In general terms, with a sales contract consideration would be one party agreeing to pay and the other agreeing to furnish goods agreed upon by the parties.
In a contract situation, the presence of duress can affect consideration. If there is no consideration present, this can help prove the existence of duress. This is because while one party benefits, the other party only receives the original promise and promising to complete an act you are already legally bound to do is not an example of consideration.
However, keep in mind this does not automatically prove duress, it just helps show there was duress because a situation where only one party benefits from a contract is not normal. Both parties are supposed to benefit and exchange consideration.
Should I Hire an Attorney for Help with Duress Legal Issues?
If you are being sued for breach of contract and believe you were under duress when signing the contract or amending the terms of an already existing contract, you should contact a contract lawyer to help with your case. A lawyer will be familiar with your state’s laws and can analyze the facts to determine if you can raise duress as a defense. A lawyer can also appear in court on your behalf.