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Assumpsit is a Latin phrase meaning "he undertook" or "he promised". From a legal view, assumpsit is an ancient term that a person would use in pleadings to recover damages from a breach of contract. A plaintiff would assert that there was an assumpsit — a promise — that a defendant did not keep. The defendant’s failure to keep his promise would then be a breach that would entitle the plaintiff to recover damages from the defendant. Historically, making an assumpsit claim was the only way a party could recover damages for a breach of contract, because no other legal remedies were available.
Legislative bodies in ancient times did not exist to pass laws to enforce contracts between private citizens. Courts had to rely on common law to make decisions. This law was developed through the courts' rulings, which were based on the customs of the people of the time. Originally, under the common law, private contracts were not enforceable between individuals. Even if it were clear that two parties had formed an agreement and that one of the parties breached that agreement, a common law court would not provide a remedy.
Courts of equity eventually recognized assumpsit as a mechanism that would allow it to enforce private agreements. Courts of equity based their rulings on principles of equity or fairness. A court of equity was known as a Court of Chancery in England and in the early American colonies. England abolished courts of equity when it enacted the Judicature Acts, which establishes England’s present court system. The U.S. abolished courts of equity when it adopted the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.
In time, assumpsit became a cause of action that would allow for recovery of damages. If an agreement was express — a promise made explicitly and clearly with oral or written language — then the claim for recovery was an express assumpsit. For example, if a painter promised to paint a home in exchange for a horse and the homeowner agreed, it would be an express agreement. If the homeowner failed to deliver the horse upon completion of the paint job, the painter would have a cause of action in an express assumpsit against the homeowner.
A general assumpsit was an action to recover damages for implied contracts. Individuals would form an implied contract based on their actions. Courts would examine the conduct of the parties to understand the intention of the parties. Depending on the circumstances, a court could conclude that there was an implied contract between the parties. The court could then enter an appropriate judgment to ensure that equity prevailed.