Legal Definition of Principal
Whoever commits an offense or aids, abets, counsels, commands, induces or procures its commission, is punishable as a principal.6 min read
- Whoever commits an offense or aids, abets, counsels, commands, induces or procures its commission, is punishable as a principal; Whoever willfully causes an act to be done which if directly performed by him or another would be an offense against the U.S., is punishable as a principal.
- A person who designates another to act as their attorney in fact or agent. This word has several meanings. It is used in opposition to accessory, to show the degree of crime committed by two persons; thus, we say, the principal is more guilty than the accessory after the fact.
In estates, principal is used as opposed to incident or accessory; as in the following rule: "the incident shall pass by the grant of the principal, but not the principal by the grant of the incident. Accessorium non ducit, sed sequitur suum principale."
It is used in opposition to agent, and in this sense it signifies that the principal is the prime mover.
It is used in opposition to interest; as, the principal being secured tho interest will follow.
It is used also in opposition to surety; thus, we say the principal is answerable before the surety.
Principal is used also to denote the more important; as, the principal person.
In the English law, the chief person in some inns of chancery is called principal of the house. Principal is also used to designate the best of many things as, the best bed, the best table, and the like.
Principal in Contracts
One who, being competent to contract, and who is sui juris, employs another to do any act for his own benefit, or on his own account.
Who May Act as a Principal?
As a general rule, it may be said, that every person, sui juris, is capable of being a principal, for in all cases where a man has power as owner, or in his own right to do anything, he may do it by another. Married women, and persons who are deprived of understanding, as idiots, lunatics, and others, not sui juris, are wholly incapable of entering into any contract, and, consequently, cannot appoint an agent.
Infants and married women are generally, incapable but, under special circumstances, they may make such appointments. For instance, an infant may make an attorney, when it is for his benefit; but lie cannot enter into any contract which is to Iiis prejudice. A married woman cannot, in general, appoint an agent or attorney, and when it is requisite that one should be appointed, the husband generally appoints for both. Perhaps for her separate property she may, with her husband, appoint an agent or attorney but this seems to be doubted.
Rights of a Principal
A principal has rights which he can enforce, and is liable to obligations which he must perform. These will be briefly considered: The rights to which principals are entitled arise from obligations due to them by their agents, or by third persons.
The rights against their agents:
- To call them to an account at all times, in relation to the business of their agency.
- When the agent violates his obligations to his principal, either by exceeding his authority, or by positive misconduct, or by mere negligence or omissions in the discharge of the functions of his agency, or in any other manner, and any loss or damage falls on his principal, the latter will be entitled to full indemnity.
- The principal has a right to supersede his agent, where each may maintain a suit against a third person, by suing in his own name; and he may, by his own intervention, intercept, suspend, or extinguish the right of the agent under the contract.
The principal's rights against third persons: When a contract is made by the agent with a third person in the name of his principal, the latter may enforce it by action. But to this rule there are some exceptions:
- When the instrument is under seal, and it has been exclusively made between the agent and the third person; as, for example, a charter party or bottomry bond iii this case the principal cannot sue on it.
- When an exclusive credit is given to and by the agent, and therefore the principal cannot be considered in any manner a party to the contract, although he may have authorized it, and be entitled to all the benefits arising from it. The case of a foreign factor, buying or selling goods, is an example of this kind: he is treated as between himself and the other party, as the sole contractor, and the real principal cannot sue or be sued on the contract. This, it has been well observed, is a general rule of commercial law, founded upon the known usage of trade; and it is strictly adhered to for the safety and convenience of foreign commerce.
- When the agent, has a lien or claim upon the property bought or sold, or upon its proceeds, when it equals or exceeds the amount of its value.
But contracts are not infrequently made without mentioning the name of the principal; in such case he may avail himself of the agreement, for the contract will be treated as that of the principal, as well as of the agent. Third persons are also liable to the principal for any tort or injury done to his property or rights in the course of the agency.
Liabilities of a Principal
The liabilities of the principal are either to his agent or to third persons.
The liabilities of the principal to his agent are:
- To reimburse him all expenses he may have lawfully incurred about the agency.
- To pay him his commissions as agreed upon, or according to the usage of trade, except in cases of gratuitous agency.
- To indemnify the agent when he has sustained damages in consequence of the principal's conduct for example, when the agent has innocently sold the goods of a third person, under the direction or authority of his principal, and a third person recovers damages against the agent, the latter will be entitled to reimbursement from the principal.
The liabilities of the principal to third persons are:
- To fulfill all the engagements made by the agent, for or in the name of the principal, and which come within the scope of his authority. When a man stands by and permits another to do an act in his name, his authority will be presumed.
- The principal is liable to third persons for the misfeasance, negligence, or omission of duty of his agent; but he has a remedy over against the agent, when the injury has occurred in consequence of his misconduct or culpable neglect but the principal is not liable for torts committed by the agent without authority.
- A principal is also liable for the misconduct of a sub-agent, when retained by his direction, either express or implied.
The general, rule, that a principal cannot be charged with injuries committed by his agent without his assent, admits of one exception, for reasons of policy. A sheriff is liable, even under a penal statute, for all injurious acts, willful or negligent, done by his appointed officers, colore officii, when charged and deputed by him to execute the law. The sheriff is, therefore, liable where his deputy wrongfully executes a writ or where he takes illegal fees.But the principal may be liable for his agent's misconduct, when he has agreed, either expressly or by implication, to be so liable.
Principals in Criminal Law
A principal is one who is the actor in the commission of a crime and are of two kinds; namely:
- Principals in the first degree, are those who have actually with their own hands committed the fact, or have committed it through an innocent agent incapable himself, of doing so; as an example of the latter kind, may be mentioned the case of a person who incites a child wanting discretion, or a person non compos, to the commission of murder, or any other crime, the incitor, though absent, when the crime was committed, is, ex necessitate, liable for the acts of his agent and is a principal in the first degree. It is not requisite that each of the principals should be present at the entire transaction. For example, where several persons agree to forge an instrument, and each performs some part of the forgery in pursuance of the common plan, each is principal in the forgery, although one may be away when it is signed.
- Principals in the second degree, are those who were present aiding and abetting the commission of the fact. They are generally termed aiders and abettors, and sometimes, improperly, accomplices. The presence which is required in order to make a man principal in the second degree, need not be a strict actual, immediate presence, such a presence as would make him an eye or ear witness of what passes, but may be a constructive presence. It must be such as may be sufficient to afford aid and assistance to the principal in the first degree. It is evident from the definition that to make a man a principal, he must be an actor in the commission of the crime and, therefore, if a man happen merely to be present when a felony is committed without taking any part in it-or aiding those who do, he will not, for that reason, be considered a principal.