What Is Pro-Tanto?

Pro tanto is a Latin phrase which means “only to that extent,” and is often used to denote partial fulfillment of an actual or potential obligation — often in the form of a partial payment — toward a claim asserted in a lawsuit.

Key Takeaways

  • Pro-tanto refers to a partial payment made "only to that extent" of a larger obligation or commitment.
  • In eminent domain cases, where a government seizes or condemns private property, the owner must be paid just compensation, with an initial pro-tanto payment made.
  • Property owners seeking greater compensation above the pro-tanto amount may seek remediation in court.

Understanding Pro-Tanto

In the U.S., states and the federal government have the right of eminent domain, which allows governments to seize land for certain reasons, transferring the title from private to public ownership. For example, when the national highway system was constructed under President Eisenhower's direction in the 1950s, many homeowners, farmers, and ranchers had their property seized because the government needed the land to build the interstate highway system. As compensation, the government paid owners fair market value. However, what the government considers just compensation may not be regarded as "just" or "fair" by the person whose property is seized.

Pro-tanto is commonly used in eminent domain cases, to describe a partial payment made for the taking by the government without prejudice to the right of the petitioner to bring an action for the full amount that he claims is due. So if a local government paid the owner of a property seized in an eminent domain case, pro-tanto, the landowner would still have the option to counter-claim.

With regard to compensation, there is debate as to what constitutes fair recompense for owners of expropriated property. In cases spanning five decades, from the 1930s to the 1980s, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly acknowledged that the definition of "fair market value" can fall short of what sellers may demand and possibly receive in voluntary transactions.

Pro-Tanto in Property Condemnation

Sometimes an act of eminent domain will deem a property condemned, or unusable due to health or safety concerns. The condemning authority must also provide "just compensation" (the language comes from the Fifth Amendment in the U.S. Constitution), and the condemnation must be carried out for some public good (such as public health).

If the property owner considers the amount offered inadequately reflects the value, they can pursue the matter in court.  Condemned property owners could then challenge the legality of the seizure in court, suing for more compensation or the right to keep the property based on failure to prove the seizure was in the public interest. Before property seizure, government authorities must first appraise the property. They may then pay a pro tanto award, which the owner can accept without losing the right to sue, or the parties can come to a full settlement. Pro tanto payments are often small compared to the amount the courts ultimately award owners of the condemned property.