Don’t be King Triton – Consult with a Lawyer!

Don’t be King Triton – Consult with a Lawyer!

by Onyinyechi Muilenburg

A few nights ago, as I was watching The Little Mermaid with my toddler for the 100th time, I muttered to myself, “There’s no way that contract is enforceable. I wish Ariel had consulted with a lawyer.” For those of you who have not seen the movie, or have chosen to forget, let me bring you up to speed (spoiler alert):

After 16-year old Ariel is disciplined by her father, King Triton, for falling in love with a human, in an act of rebellion, Ariel consults Ursula the Sea Witch to see how she can help with her dilemma. Ursula’s motives are not pure – she wants to oust King Triton and become ruler of the sea people. She convinces Ariel to sign a contract.

The contract states that Ariel must give Ursula her voice (which is the part of Ariel that the human fell in love with) and in exchange, Ursula will make Ariel human for three days. Ariel stays human forever if she can get the human to kiss her by the end of the third day. If the human doesn’t kiss Ariel by the deadline, then Ariel becomes Ursula’s prisoner forever (prisoner = a sad looking creature tethered to the bottom of Ursula’s lair). Just as the human (did I also mention that the human is a prince?) is about to kiss Ariel, because he realizes that Ariel is the girl with the pretty voice, the sun sets. King Triton tries to step/swim in, but King Triton is unable to physically break the alleged unbreakable and totally enforceable contract. King Triton doesn’t put up a fight. He doesn’t consult a mer-lawyer. He doesn’t try to appeal the decision. Instead, he takes Ariel’s place as the prisoner, and Ursula becomes the ruler of the sea people. Fortunately for everyone, this is only for a very short time, until the human impales her with a ship.

Now I know that everything works out in the end of this story (otherwise we’d have a lot of traumatized children). But there were other ways to resolve their contractual dispute without bloodshed. Let’s consider Ariel’s options and the contract defenses:

  1. The contract was void because Ariel is a minor (under 18 at the time of signing). In Texas, a contract with a minor is voidable at the minor’s election. Perhaps the sea gods don’t consider a 16-year old a minor. Not to worry – there are other ways to attack the contract.
  2. The contract is void against public policy. Contract provisions that allow for imprisoning a party for life seem a little extreme, even for mer-people.
  3. Similarly, the terms of the contract are unconscionable, meaning the contract is unfair because it is grossly one-sided. If a contract’s terms are unconscionable, Texas courts can throw out the whole contract or take out the lopsided provision.
  4. Ursula has unclean hands. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by guaranteeing that any court, whether land or sea, wouldn’t allow Ursula to imprison Ariel forever, especially after Ursula hypnotized the human, making it impossible for Ariel to perform under the contract. Poor Ariel never had a chance.
  5. Ariel also might have a good argument that she was fraudulently induced into signing the contract. There is a difference between convincing someone to sign a contract and lying to someone to get them to sign a contract. Punitive damages are recoverable in these kinds of claims, and are more tough to get (the standard of proof is higher), but I think there is a good argument that Ursula’s actions warrant additional punishment.
  6. Similarly, Ariel can countersue for breach of contract by alleging Ursula breached the contract first by making it impossible for Ariel to get her kiss from the human. And by counterclaiming for breach of contract, I might be able to recoup Ariel’s attorney’s fees, but I digress.

The point is, I may be a little obsessive, but in between potty training and time outs, I’m always thinking like a lawyer – trying to figure out every which way to dissect a legal issue, especially if the dispute involves a contract. If you find yourself in Ariel’s position – someone is coming after you because you signed a contract that seems unfair or confusing – don’t be King Triton. Let me look at your contract and help develop creative solutions to tackle your issue. After all, I would hate to see you become one of those poor unfortunate souls attached to the bottom of the ocean floor, without putting up a fight first.

(Little Mermaid Image Sources: justadadwithquestions.wordpress.com, cultrbox.com and hollywood.com/)


No information in this article is intended to constitute legal advice. For specific legal advice, please contact an attorney.

If you have any questions or would like more information about labor and employment, please contact Christin L. Grant at 713.220.9128 or cgrant@hirschwest.com.