Amici Curiae Brief in Support of Henrietta Lacks Estate
12 Pages Posted: 6 Apr 2022
Date Written: February 18, 2022
The underlying theory for an unjust enrichment claim is simple: “A person who is unjustly enriched at the expense of another is subject to liability in restitution.” Restatement (Third) of Restitution and Unjust Enrichment § 1 (Am. Law. Inst. 2011). A quintessential example of restitution is to seek disgorgement for improper gains. Plaintiff, the Estate of Henrietta Lacks, alleges that defendant has benefitted unjustly by profiting from the HeLa cell line at Henrietta Lacks’s expense. Accordingly, plaintiff asks that defendant disgorge its wrongful profits. That is entirely proper.
This amici brief addresses the law of unjust enrichment and its relationship to restitution remedies. It refutes defendant’s contention that plaintiff has failed to state a valid cause of action for restitution relief. Defendant incorrectly insists that plaintiff must plead a tort to seek restitution remedies as well as defendant’s lack of bona fide purchaser status to prevail. Both arguments belie the basic tenets of unjust enrichment law. Simply, plaintiff may seek restitution remedies based solely on defendant’s unjust enrichment as a cause of action. Neither a separate tort nor an allegation of the lack of bona fide purchaser status is required. This brief supports plaintiff’s ability to survive these challenges.
Plaintiff’s complaint applies the law of restitution in a new area, for the underlying alleged facts are unique. The unjustness of defendant’s behavior begins with the failure to obtain Henrietta Lacks’s consent, and it ends with defendant’s failure to compensate the Lacks estate despite amassing enormous profits from her unique, immortal cell line. Restitution remedies are designed to capture novel forms of misconduct. “The court does not restrict itself by describing all the specific forms of inequitable holding which will move it to grant relief, but rather reserves freedom to apply this remedy to whatever knavery human ingenuity can invent.” Bogert, Law of Trusts & Trustees § 471, at 29 (rev. 2d ed. 1978).
For hundreds of years, the common law, including the law of restitution, has evolved to apply to unique fact patterns and fashion appropriate relief. These common law developments are essential as times change, scientific discovery advances, and knowledge of wrongdoing comes to light. Restitution law requires common law advancements to serve the overarching purpose of ensuring wrongdoers cannot retain unjust enrichments. Plaintiff seeks to use restitution and its remedies to serve the very purposes underlying this vast body of law. Amici agree that the law of restitution and the relevant Restatement provisions should aid this plaintiff. The lack of identical precedent should not block the ability of restitution law to provide disgorgement relief for the type of wrongdoing alleged. If the Court finds that plaintiff has plausibly pleaded its claim, this amici brief argues that the Court should not dismiss simply because there is no case directly on point. Rather, the Court should follow the law of restitution and the Restatement’s guiding principles to help further develop compelling applications of unjust enrichment law such as this case.
Keywords: restitution, unjust enrichment, disgorgement, unjust gain, wrongful profits, remedies, wrongdoing, consent, unwanted medical procedure, immortal cell line, bioethics
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation