What is conspiracy?

In law, a “conspiracy” occurs when two or more people agree to do something illegal, or to do something legal but to do it in an illegal way.

The term “conspiracy” describes these kinds of agreements in both civil and criminal cases, although the specific elements required in each kind of case may be different in different states.  Usually, a civil conspiracy only requires that the conspirators have made some kind of agreement, either to do an illegal act or to commit a tort.  By contrast, most criminal conspiracy cases require the defendant to have done something toward completing the conspiracy’s goals, in addition to agreeing to do an illegal act.

Even a legal act will make a criminal defendant responsible for conspiracy if it was aimed at the conspiracy’s illegal purpose.  For instance, a criminal defendant may be convicted for conspiracy if he agrees with two friends to rob a neighbor’s house, then goes and buys a crowbar to help them break in.  Even though buying the crowbar is legal, the fact that the defendant did it for an illegal purpose (breaking into another person’s house) and to further the ends of the conspiracy (to rob the house) is enough.

The law of civil conspiracy varies among U.S. states.  Several states do not recognize civil conspiracy as a separate tort, even if they recognize criminal conspiracy as a separate crime.  In these states, an injured plaintiff can only hold a defendant liable for civil conspiracy if the conspiracy led to the committing of another tort that injured the plaintiff.  The plaintiff can, however, sue every member of the conspiracy for damages even if not every member of the conspiracy caused the tort that injured the plaintiff.

For instance, suppose that a plaintiff decides to buy a house.  The house was originally a summer cottage on a lake, but has been converted for year-round living by the current homeowners, a husband and wife.  Because the current homeowners had no experience with carpentry, plumbing, or electricity, however, the conversions are a mess and the house is unsafe to live in without extensive repairs.

Instead of telling the plaintiff about the amateur, dangerous work they did on the house, however, the homeowner husband and wife decide between themselves that they are going to keep quiet and let the buyer think the house is fine.  When the buyer hires a home inspector, the homeowners call him and convince him to keep quiet about any defective or dangerous conditions he finds in the house.  The inspector agrees and tells the buyer the house is fine.

The plaintiff buys the house and moves in, believing what the two homeowners and the inspector told him: that the house is fine.  Pretty soon, however, things begin going wrong, and the plaintiff discovers that the house is in fact dangerous to live in.  He sues both of the previous homeowners and the inspector for fraud and also for civil conspiracy, arguing that they all agreed to keep quiet about the house’s true condition in order to get the plaintiff to buy the house.

If the plaintiff can prove that fraud exists, he may also be able to prove that a conspiracy existed because the husband, the wife, and the inspector all agreed to lie or to keep silent about the house’s true condition.  Even though the inspector did not benefit in any way from the lie, the fact that he agreed to and did lie about the house’s condition makes him a part of the conspiracy to bring benefit (a higher sale price for the house than it was worth) to the homeowners via fraud (by not telling about the defects in order to get the plaintiff to pay the higher price).

Civil conspiracy also plays a large part in economic injury law.  For instance, two or more corporations that agree to engage in antitrust behavior like price-fixing may be sued for conspiracy as well as for violating the antitrust laws.  Likewise, if two or more individuals or companies agree to act to prevent a third person or company from making a business deal with someone else, they may be sued for conspiracy as well as for the underlying tort of tortious inteference with a contract or a business relationship. A civil conspiracy can also be based on an intentional tort such as assault.

Usually, however, civil conspiracy claims are not based on negligence claims, since people rarely agree ahead of time to act negligently, carelessly, or recklessly.  Instead, if two or more defendants are involved in a negligent act that injures a plaintiff, they are each sued for negligence in the same case or in separate court cases.  An additional negligent defendant may also be added to a case after a defendant points that party out in a third-party liability defense.

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