Table of Contents
After reading this chapter, you should understand the following:
- The basic theory of contract remedies, and why courts don’t just order the promisor to perform as promised
- The interests that are protected by contract remedies
- The types of legal remedies
- The types of equitable remedies
- The limitations on remedies
We come at last to the question of remedies. A valid agreement has been made, the promisor’s duties have not been discharged; he or she has breached the contract. When one party has failed to perform, what are the rights of the parties? Or when the contract has been avoided because of incapacity or misrepresentation and the like, what are the rights of the parties after disaffirmance? These questions form the focus of this chapter. Remedies for breach of contracts for the sale of goods will be considered separately, in Chapter 18 "Title and Risk of Loss".
16.1 Theory of Contract Remedies
- Understand the basic purpose of remedies.
- Recognize that there are two general categories of remedies: legal and equitable.
- See that courts do not simply order obligors to keep their promise but instead allow them to breach and the nonbreaching party to have remedies for that breach.
Purpose of Remedies
The fundamental purpose of remedies in noncriminal cases is not to punish the breaching party but—if possible—to put the nonbreaching party in the position he or she would have been in had there been no breach. Or, as is said, the purpose is to make the nonbreaching party whole.
There are two general categories of remedies—legal and equitable. In the category of legal remedies are damages. Damages are money paid by one party to another; there are several types of damages. In the category of equitable remedies are these three: specific performance, which means a person is ordered to deliver a unique thing (land or a unique personal property, such as a painting or an antique car); injunction, a judicial order directing a person to stop doing what he or she should not do (such as competing with a former employer in violation of a noncompete agreement); and restitution, which means putting the parties back into the position they were in before the contract was made.
Parties Have the Power—but Not the Right—to Breach
In view of the importance given to the intention of the parties in forming and interpreting contracts, it may seem surprising that the remedy for every breach is not a judicial order that the obligor carry out his or her undertakings. But it is not. Of course, some duties cannot be performed after a breach, because time and circumstances will have altered their purpose and rendered many worthless. Still, there are numerous occasions on which it would be theoretically possible for courts to order the parties to carry out their contracts, yet the courts will not do it. In 1897, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. declared in a famous line that “the duty to keep a contract at common law means a prediction that you must pay damages if you do not keep it.” By that, he meant simply that the common law looks more toward compensating the promisee for his or her loss than toward compelling the promisor to perform. Indeed, the law of remedies often provides the parties with an incentive to break the contract. In short, the promisor has a choice: perform or pay.
The logic of this position is clear in many typical cases. The computer manufacturer orders specially designed circuit boards, then discovers before the circuits are made that a competitor has built a better machine and destroyed his market. The manufacturer cancels the order. It would make little economic sense for the circuit board maker to fabricate the boards if they could not be used elsewhere. A damage remedy to compensate the maker for out-of-pocket loss or lost profits is sensible; a judicial decree forcing the computer manufacturer to pay for and take delivery of the boards would be wasteful.
In general and if possible, the fundamental purpose of contract remedies is to put the nonbreaching party in the position it would have been in had there been no breach.
Remedies are intended to make the nonbreaching party whole. The two categories of remedies for breach of contract are legal and equitable. In the legal category are damages; in the equitable category are specific performance, injunctions, and restitution. The law does not force a party to perform; he or she always has the power (though not the right) to breach, and may do so if it is economically more advantageous to breach and suffer the consequence than to perform. Remedies, though, are not (usually) intended to punish the breaching party.
- Remedies are not supposed to punish the breaching party, generally. In what circumstances might punishment be a remedy, and what is that called?
- What is the difference between legal and equitable remedies?
- Why shouldn’t people be forced to perform as they contracted, instead of giving them the power to breach and then be required to pay damages?
16.2 Promisee’s Interests Protected by Contract
- Understand that the nonbreaching party to a contract has certain expectations that contract remedies seek to fulfill to make the nonbreaching party whole.
Contract remedies serve to protect three different interests: an expectation interest, a reliance interest, and a restitution interest. A promisee will have one of these and may have two or all three.
An expectation interest is the benefit for which the promisee bargained, and the remedy is to put him in a position as good as that which he would have been in had the contract been performed. A reliance interest is the loss suffered by relying on the contract and taking actions consistent with the expectation that the other party will abide by it; the remedy is reimbursement that restores the promisee to his position before the contract was made. A restitution interest is that which restores to the promisee any benefit he conferred on the promisor. These interests do not dictate the outcome according to a rigid formula; circumstances and the nature of the contract, as usual, will play a large role. But in general, specific performance is a remedy that addresses the expectation interest, monetary damages address all three interests, and, not surprisingly, restitution addresses the restitution interest.
Consider some simple examples. A landowner repudiates an executory contract with a builder to construct a garage on her property for $100,000. The builder had anticipated a $10,000 profit (the garage would have cost him $90,000 to build). What can he expect to recover in a lawsuit against the owner? The court will not order the garage to be built; such an order would be wasteful, since the owner no longer wants it and may not be able to pay for it. Instead, the court will look to the builder’s three possible interests. Since the builder has not yet started his work, he has given the owner nothing, and therefore has no restitution interest. Nor has he any reliance interest, since we are assuming that he has not paid out any money for supplies, hired a work crew, or advanced money to subcontractors. But he anticipated a profit, and so he has an expectation interest of $10,000.
Now suppose that the builder had dug out the foundation and poured concrete, at a cost of $15,000. His expectation interest has become $25,000 (the difference between $100,000 and $75,000, the money he will save by not having to finish the job). His reliance interest is $15,000, because this is the amount he has already spent. He may also have a restitution interest, depending on how much the foundation of the house is worth to the owner. (The value could be more or less than the sum of money actually expended to produce the foundation; for example, the builder might have had to pay his subcontractors for a greater share of the job than they had completed, and those sums therefore would not be reflected in the worth of the foundation.)
Normally, the promisee will choose which of the three interests to pursue. As is to be expected, the choice hinges on the circumstances of the case, his feelings, and the amount at stake.
A nonbreaching party might have one or more interests that the law seeks to realize: expectation, reliance, and restitution.
- What is the expectation interest? The reliance interest? The restitution interest?
- How are these concepts useful in understanding contract remedies?
16.3 Legal Remedies: Damages
- Understand what is meant when it is said that damages are a legal remedy (as opposed to an equitable remedy).
- Understand the names and purposes of the six types of remedies.
- Know when liquidated damages will be allowed.
- Recognize the circumstances that might allow punitive damages.
The promisee, whom we will hereafter refer to as the nonbreaching party, has the right to damages (a money award), if that is required to make her whole, whenever the other party has breached the contract, unless, of course, the contract itself or other circumstances suspend or discharge that right. Damages refers to money paid by one side to the other; it is a legal remedy. For historical and political reasons in the development of the English legal system, the courts of law were originally only able to grant monetary relief. If a petitioner wanted something other than money, recourse to a separate system of equity was required. The courtrooms and proceedings for each were separate. That actual separation is long gone, but the distinction is still recognized; a judge may be said to be “sitting in law” or “sitting in equity,” or a case may involve requests for both money and some action. We take up the legal remedies of damages first.
Types of Damages
There are six different types of damages: compensatory, incidental, consequential, nominal, liquidated, and (sometimes) punitive.
Damages paid to directly compensate the nonbreaching party for the value of what was not done or performed are compensatory damages. Sometimes calculating that value of the promisor’s performance is easy—for example, when the nonbreaching party has ascertainable costs and profits, as in the case of the builder who would have earned $10,000 profit on a $100,000 house. When the performance is a service, a useful measure of loss is what it would cost to substitute performance by someone else. But the calculation is frequently difficult, especially when the performance is a service that is not easily duplicated. If Rembrandt breached a contract to paint your portrait, the loss could not be measured simply by inquiring how much Van Gogh would charge to do the same thing. Nevertheless, in theory, whatever net value would ultimately have been conferred on the nonbreaching party is the proper measure of compensatory damages. An author whose publisher breaches its contract to publish the book and who cannot find another publisher is entitled to lost royalties (if ascertainable) plus the value that would have accrued from her enhanced reputation.
Since the nonbreaching party usually has obligations under the contract also, a breach by the other party discharges his duty to perform and may result in savings. Or he may have made substitute arrangements and realized at least a partial profit on the substitution. Or, as in the case of the builder, he may have purchased goods intended for the job that can be used elsewhere. In all these situations, the losses he has avoided—savings, profits, or value of goods—are subtracted from the losses incurred to arrive at the net damages. The nonbreaching party may recover his actual losses, not more. Suppose an employer breaches a contract with a prospective employee who was to begin work for a year at a salary of $35,000. The employee quickly finds other, similar work at a salary of $30,000. Aside from whatever he might have had to spend searching for the job (incidental damages), his compensatory damages are limited to $5,000, the difference between what he would have earned and what he is earning.
Lost volume can be a troublesome problem in calculating damages. This problem arises when the nonbreaching party, a supplier of goods or services, enters a second contract when the buyer repudiates. The question is whether the second contract is a substituted performance or an additional one. If it is substituted, damages may be little or nothing; if additional, the entire expectation interest may be recovered. An automobile dealer contracts to sell a car in his inventory. Shortly before the deal is closed, the buyer calls up and repudiates the contract. The dealer then sells the car to someone else. If the dealer can show that he could have sold an identical car to the second purchaser regardless of what the first purchaser did, then the second sale stands on its own and cannot be used to offset the net profit recoverable from the first purchaser. The factual inquiry in lost volume cases is whether the nonbreaching party would have engaged in the second transaction if the breach had never occurred.
In addition to compensatory damages, the nonbreaching party may recover incidental damages. Incidental loss includes expenditures that the nonbreaching party incurs in attempting to minimize the loss that flows from the breach. To arrange for substitute goods or services, the nonbreaching party might have to pay a premium or special fees to locate another supplier or source of work.
A consequential loss is addressed with consequential damages. These are damages incurred by the nonbreaching party without action on his part because of the breach. For example, if Ralph does a poor job of plumbing Betty’s bathroom and the toilet leaks, damaging the floor, the downstairs ceiling, and the downstairs rug, Ralph would owe for those loses in consequential damages. Or, again, lost sales stemming from a failure to fix a manufacturer’s machine in time or physical and property injury due to a defective machine sold by the promisor would be addressed with consequential damages. Note, however, that one obvious, and often large, expenditure occasioned by a breach—namely, legal expenses in bringing a lawsuit to remedy the particular breach—is not an element of damages, unless the contract explicitly states that it is, and cannot be charged to the defendant. There is one situation, however, in which legal costs can be added to damages: when the breach causes the nonbreaching party to be involved in a lawsuit with someone else. Consequential damages will not be allowed if those damages are not foreseeable. This issue is taken up in Section 16.5 "Limitations on Contract Remedies".
In the situation where there has been a breach but the nonbreaching party has really suffered no loss or cannot prove what his loss is, he is entitled to nominal damages. Ricardo contracts to buy a new car from a dealer; the dealer breaches the contract. Ricardo finds and buys the same car from another dealer at the same price that the first one was to sell it for. Ricardo has suffered nominal damages: five dollars, perhaps.
Precisely because damages are sometimes difficult to assess, the parties themselves may specify how much should be paid in the event of a breach. Courts will enforce a liquidated damages provision as long as the actual amount of damages is difficult to ascertain (in which case proof of it is simply made at trial) and the sum is reasonable in light of the expected or actual harm. If the liquidated sum is unreasonably large, the excess is termed a penalty and is said to be against public policy and unenforceable. Section 16.6.2 "Liquidated Damages", Watson v. Ingram, illustrates liquidated damages.
Punitive damages are those awarded for the purpose of punishing a defendant in a civil action, in which criminal sanctions are of course unavailable. They are proper in cases in which the defendant has acted willfully and maliciously and are thought to deter others from acting similarly. Since the purpose of contract law is compensation, not punishment, punitive damages have not traditionally been awarded, with one exception—when the breach of contract is also a tort for which punitive damages may be recovered. Punitive damages are permitted in the law of torts (in all but four states) when the behavior is malicious or willful (reckless conduct causing physical harm, deliberate defamation of one’s character, a knowingly unlawful taking of someone’s property), and some kinds of contract breach are also tortious. For example, when a creditor holding collateral as security under a contract for a loan sells the collateral to a good-faith purchaser for value even though the debtor was not in default, he has breached the contract and committed the tort of conversion; punitive damages may be awarded, assuming the behavior was willful and not merely mistaken.
Punitive damages are not fixed by law. The judge or jury may award at its discretion whatever sum is believed necessary to redress the wrong or deter like conduct in the future. This means that a richer person may be slapped with much heavier punitive damages than a poorer one in the appropriate case. But the judge in all cases may remit (reduce) some or all of a punitive damage award if he or she considers it excessive.
As the purpose of contract remedies is, in general, to make the nonbreaching party whole, the law allows several types of damages (money paid) to reflect the losses suffered by the nonbreaching party. Compensatory damages compensate for the special loss suffered; consequential damages compensate for the foreseeable consequences of the breach; incidental damages compensate for the costs of keeping any more damages from occurring; nominal damages are awarded if the actual amount cannot be shown or there are no actual damages; liquidated damages are agreed to in advance where the actual amount is difficult to ascertain, and they are allowed if not a penalty; and punitive damages may sometimes be allowed if the breaching party’s behavior is an egregious tort, an outrage.
- What is the difference between a legal remedy and an equitable remedy?
- What types of remedies are there, and what purpose does each serve?
- What must be shown if liquidated damages are to be allowed?
- Under what circumstances may punitive damages be allowed?
16.4 Equitable Remedies
- Know when equitable (as opposed to legal) remedies will be allowed.
- Understand the different types of equitable remedies: specific performance, injunction, and restitution.
Really the only explanation for the differences between law and equity is to be found in the history and politics of England dating to the twelfth century, but in practical terms, the distinctions are notable. First, juries are not used in equitable cases. Second, equity relies less on precedent and more on the sense that justice should be served. Third, and of most significance, where what is sought by the nonbreaching party is not money—that is, where there is no adequate legal remedy—equity may afford relief. In equity a person may get a judge to order the breaching party to deliver some actual property, or to stop doing something that he should not do, or to return the consideration the nonbreaching party gave so as to return the parties to the precontract status (specific performance, injunction, and restitution, respectively).
Types of Remedies in Equity
There are three types of equitable remedies: specific performance, injunction, and restitution.
Specific performance is a judicial order to the promisor that he undertake the performance to which he obligated himself in a contract. Specific performance is an alternative remedy to damages and may be issued at the discretion of the court, subject to a number of exceptions. Emily signs a contract to sell Charlotte a gold samovar, a Russian antique of great sentimental value because it once belonged to Charlotte’s mother. Emily then repudiates the contract while still executory. A court may properly grant Charlotte an order of specific performance against Emily.
Once students understand the basic idea of specific performance, they often want to pounce upon it as the solution to almost any breach of contract. It seems reasonable that the nonbreaching party could ask a court to simply require the promisor to do what she promised she would. But specific performance is a very limited remedy: it is only available for breach of contract to sell a unique item, that is, a unique item of personal property (the samovar), or a parcel of real estate (all real estate is unique). But if the item is not unique, so that the nonbreaching party can go out and buy another one, then the legal remedy of money damages will solve the problem. And specific performance will never be used to force a person to perform services against his will, which would be involuntary servitude. A person may be forced to stop doing that which he should not do (injunction), but not forced to do what he will not do.
An injunction is the second type of equitable remedy available in contract (it is also available in tort). It is a court order directing a person to stop doing that which she should not do. For example, if an employer has a valid noncompete contract with an employee, and the employee, in breach of that contract, nevertheless undertakes to compete with his former employer, a court may enjoin (issue an order of injunction), directing the former employee to stop such competition. A promise by a person not to do something—in this example, not to compete—is called a negative covenant (a covenant is a promise in a contract, itself a contract). Or if Seller promises to give Buyer the right of first refusal on a parcel of real estate or a unique work of art, but Seller, in breach of a written promise, offers the thing to a third party, a court may enjoin Seller from selling it to the third party. If a person violates an injunction, he may be held in contempt of court and put in jail for a while. Madison Square Garden v. Carnera Corporation, Section 16.6.3 "Injunctions and Negative Covenants", is a classic case involving injunctions for breach of contract.
The third type of equitable relief is restitution. Restitution is a remedy applicable to several different types of cases: those in which the contract was avoided because of incapacity or misrepresentation, those in which the other party breached, and those in which the party seeking restitution breached. As the word implies, restitution is a restoring to one party of what he gave to the other. Therefore, only to the extent that the injured party conferred a benefit on the other party may the injured party be awarded restitution. The point is, a person who breaches a contract should not suffer a punishment, and the nonbreaching party should not be unjustly enriched.
Total Nonperformance by Breaching Party
The nonbreaching party is always entitled to restitution in the event of total breach by nonperformance or repudiation, unless both parties have performed all duties except for payment by the other party of a definite sum of money for the injured party’s performance.Restatement (Second) of Contracts, Section 373. Calhoun, a contractor, agrees to build $3,000 worth of fences for only $2,000 and completes the construction. Arlene, the landowner, refuses to pay. Calhoun’s only right is to get the $2,000; he does not have a restitution right to $2,500, the market price of his services (or $3,000, the amount by which her property increased in value); he is entitled, instead, only to $2,000, his contract price. Had Arlene repudiated prior to completion, however, Calhoun would then have been entitled to restitution based either on the market price of the work or on the amount by which he enhanced her property. If the one party breaches, the nonbreaching party is generally entitled to restitution of property that can be returned. Arlene gives Calhoun a valuable Ming vase in return for his promise to construct the fences. Upon Calhoun’s breach, Arlene is entitled to specific restitution of the vase.
Measuring restitution interest can be problematic. The courts have considerable discretion to award either what it would have cost to hire someone else to do the work that the nonbreaching party performed (generally, the market price of the service) or the value that was added to the property of the party in breach by virtue of the claimant’s performance. Calhoun, the contractor, agrees to construct ten fences around Arlene’s acreage at the market price of $25,000. After erecting three, Calhoun has performed services that would cost $7,500, market value. Assume that he has increased the value of Arlene’s grounds by $8,000. If Arlene repudiated, there are two measures of Calhoun’s restitution interest: $8,000, the value by which the property was enhanced, or $7,500, the amount it would have cost Arlene to hire someone else to do the work. Which measure to use depends on who repudiated the contract and for what reason. In some cases, the enhancement of property or wealth measurement could lead to an award vastly exceeding the market price for the service. In such cases, the smaller measure is used. For a doctor performing lifesaving operations on a patient, restitution would recover only the market value of the doctor’s services—not the monetary value of the patient’s life.
Part Performance and Then Breach
A party who has substantially performed and then breached is entitled to restitution of a benefit conferred on the injured party, if the injured party has refused (even though justifiably) to complete his own performance owing to the other’s breach. Since the party in breach is liable to the injured party for damages for loss, this rule comes into play only when the benefit conferred is greater than the amount the nonbreaching party has lost. Arlene agrees to sell her property to Calhoun for $120,000, and Calhoun makes a partial payment of $30,000. He then repudiates. Arlene turns around and sells the property to a third party for $110,000. Calhoun—the breaching party—can get his money back, less the damages Arlene suffered as a result of his breach. He gets $30,000 minus the $10,000 loss Arlene incurred. He gets $20,000 in restitution. Otherwise Arlene would be enriched by Calhoun’s breach: she’d get $140,000 in total for real estate worth $120,000. But if he gets $20,000 of his $30,000 back, she receives $110,000 from the third party and $10,000 from Calhoun, so she gets $120,000 total (plus, we hope, incidental damages, at least).
Restitution in Other Cases
Upon repudiation of an oral contract governed by the Statute of Frauds, the nonbreaching party is not entitled to her expectation interest, but she may recover in restitution unless the purpose of the statute would be frustrated. When one party avoids a contract owing to lack of capacity, mistake, misrepresentation, duress, or the like, she is entitled to restitution for benefit conferred on the other party. Restitution is also available if a contract duty is discharged or never arises because (1) performance was impracticable, (2) the purpose of the contract was frustrated, (3) a condition did not occur, or (4) a beneficiary disclaimed his benefit.
Equitable remedies for breach of contract are available when legal remedies won’t make the nonbreaching party whole. The equitable remedies are specific performance (an order directing a person to deliver to the buyer the unique thing the seller contracted to sell), injunction (an order directing a person to stop doing that which he should not do), and restitution (the return by one party of the benefit conferred on him when the contract is not performed, to the extent necessary to avoid imposing a penalty on the breaching party).
- Buyer contracts to buy a 1941 four-door Cadillac convertible from Seller for $75,000. Seller, having found a Third Party who will pay $85,000 for the car, refuses to sell to Buyer. What is Buyer’s remedy?
- Assume Third Party had paid the $85,000 and Seller was ordered to sell to Buyer. What is Third Party’s remedy?
- Professor Smith contracts to teach business law at State University for the academic year. After the first term is over, she quits. Can State University get an order of specific performance or an injunction requiring Professor Smith to return for the second term?
- Now suppose that the reason Professor Smith quit work at State University is because she got a better job at Central University, fifteen miles away. Can State University get an injunction prohibiting her from teaching at Central University?
16.5 Limitations on Contract Remedies
- Understand that there are various rules that limit recovery for the nonbreaching party in a contract case.
- Know how these concepts serve to limit contract remedies: foreseeability, mitigation of damages, certainty of damages, loss of power of avoidance, election of remedies, and agreement of the parties.
We have observed that the purpose of remedies in contract law is, where possible, to put the nonbreaching party in as good a position as he would have been in had there been no breach. There are, however, several limitations or restrictions affecting when a person can claim remedies, in both law (damages) and equity. Of course the contract itself may—if not unconscionable—limit remedies. Beyond that, the nonbreaching party must be able to articulate with some degree of certainty what her damages are; the damages must be foreseeable; the nonbreaching party must have made a reasonable effort to mitigate the damages; she must sometime elect to go with one remedy and forgo another; she cannot seek to avoid a contract if she has lost the power to do so. We turn to these points.
If the damages that flow from a breach of contract lack foreseeability, they will not be recoverable. Failures to act, like acts themselves, have consequences. As the old fable has it, “For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost.” To put a nonbreaching party in the position he would have been in had the contract been carried out could mean, in some cases, providing compensation for a long chain of events. In many cases, that would be unjust, because a person who does not anticipate a particular event when making a contract will not normally take steps to protect himself (either through limiting language in the contract or through insurance). The law is not so rigid; a loss is not compensable to the nonbreaching party unless the breaching party, at the time the contract was made, understood the loss was foreseeable as a probable result of his breach.
Of course, the loss of the contractual benefit in the event of breach is always foreseeable. A company that signs an employment contract with a prospective employee knows full well that if it breaches, the employee will have a legitimate claim to lost salary. But it might have no reason to know that the employee’s holding the job for a certain length of time was a condition of his grandfather’s gift of $1 million.
The leading case, perhaps the most studied case, in all the common law is Hadley v. Baxendale, decided in England in 1854. Joseph and Jonah Hadley were proprietors of a flour mill in Gloucester. In May 1853, the shaft of the milling engine broke, stopping all milling. An employee went to Pickford and Company, a common carrier, and asked that the shaft be sent as quickly as possible to a Greenwich foundry that would use the shaft as a model to construct a new one. The carrier’s agent promised delivery within two days. But through an error, the shaft was shipped by canal rather than by rail and did not arrive in Greenwich for seven days. The Hadleys sued Joseph Baxendale, managing director of Pickford, for the profits they lost because of the delay. In ordering a new trial, the Court of Exchequer ruled that Baxendale was not liable because he had had no notice that the mill was stopped:
Where two parties have made a contract which one of them has broken, the damages which the other party ought to receive in respect of such breach of contract should be such as may fairly and reasonably be considered either arising naturally, i.e., according to the usual course of things, from such breach of contract itself, or such as may reasonably be supposed to have been in the contemplation of both parties, at the time they made the contract, as the probable result of the breach of it.Hadley v. Baxendale (1854), 9 Ex. 341, 354, 156 Eng.Rep. 145, 151.
Thus when the party in breach has not known and has had no reason to know that the contract entailed a special risk of loss, the burden must fall on the nonbreaching party. As we have seen, damages attributable to losses that flow from events that do not occur in the ordinary course of events are known as consequential or special damages. The exact amount of a loss need not be foreseeable; it is the nature of the event that distinguishes between claims for ordinary or consequential damages. A repair shop agrees to fix a machine that it knows is intended to be resold. Because it delays, the sale is lost. The repair shop, knowing why timeliness of performance was important, is liable for the lost profit, as long as it was reasonable. It would not be liable for an extraordinary profit that the seller could have made because of circumstances peculiar to the particular sale unless they were disclosed.
The special circumstances need not be recited in the contract. It is enough for the party in breach to have actual knowledge of the loss that would occur through his breach. Moreover, the parol evidence rule (Chapter 13 "Form and Meaning") does not bar introduction of evidence bearing on the party’s knowledge before the contract was signed. So the lesson to a promisee is that the reason for the terms he bargains for should be explained to the promisor—although too much explanation could kill a contract. A messenger who is paid five dollars to deliver a letter across town is not likely to undertake the mission if he is told in advance that his failure for any reason to deliver the letter will cost the sender $1 million, liability to be placed on the messenger.
Actual knowledge is not the only criterion, because the standard of foreseeability is objective, not subjective. That means that if the party had reason to know—if a reasonable person would have understood—that a particular loss was probable should he breach, then he is liable for damages. What one has reason to know obviously depends on the circumstances of the case, the parties’ prior dealings, and industry custom. A supplier selling to a middleman should know that the commodity will be resold and that delay or default may reduce profits, whereas delay in sale to an end user might not. If it was foreseeable that the breach might cause the nonbreaching party to be sued, the other party is liable for legal fees and a resulting judgment or the cost of a settlement.
Even though the breaching party may have knowledge, the courts will not always award full consequential damages. In the interests of fairness, they may impose limitations if such an award would be manifestly unfair. Such cases usually crop up when the parties have dealt informally and there is a considerable disproportion between the loss caused and the benefit the nonbreaching party had agreed to confer on the party who breached. The messenger may know that a huge sum of money rides on his prompt delivery of a letter across town, but unless he explicitly contracted to bear liability for failure to deliver, it is unlikely that the courts would force him to ante up $1 million when his fee for the service was only five dollars.
EBWS, LLC v. Britly Corp., Section 16.6.1 "Consequential Damages", is a case that represents a modern application of the rule of Hadley v. Baxendale on the issue of foreseeability of consequential damages.
Mitigation of Damages
Contract law encourages the nonbreaching party to avoid loss wherever possible; this is called mitigation of damages. The concept is a limitation on damages in law. So there can be no recovery if the nonbreaching party had an opportunity to avoid or limit losses and failed to take advantage of it. Such an opportunity exists as long as it does not impose, in the Restatement’s words, an “undue risk, burden or humiliation.”Restatement (Second) of Contracts, Section 350. The effort to mitigate need not be successful. As long as the nonbreaching party makes a reasonable, good-faith attempt to mitigate his losses, damages are recoverable.
Mitigation crops up in many circumstances. Thus a nonbreaching party who continues to perform after notice that the promisor has breached or will breach may not recover for expenses incurred in continuing to perform. And losses from the use of defective goods delivered in breach of contract are not compensable if the nonbreaching party knew before use that they were defective. Often the nonbreaching party can make substitute arrangements—find a new job or a new employee, buy substitute goods or sell them to another buyer—and his failure to do so will limit the amount of damages he will recover from the party who breaches. Under the general rule, failure to mitigate when possible permits the promisor to deduct from damages the amount of the loss that the nonbreaching party could have avoided. When there is a readily ascertainable market price for goods, damages are equal to the difference between the contract price and the market price.
A substitute transaction is not just any possible arrangement; it must be suitable under the circumstances. Factors to be considered include the similarity, time, and place of performance, and whether the difference between the contracted-for and substitute performances can be measured and compensated. A prospective employee who cannot find substitute work within her field need not mitigate by taking a job in a wholly different one. An advertising salesperson whose employment is repudiated need not mitigate by taking a job as a taxi driver. When the only difference between the original and the substitute performances is price, the nonbreaching party must mitigate, even if the substitute performer is the original promisor.
The nonbreaching party must mitigate in timely fashion, but each case is different. If it is clear that the promisor has unconditionally repudiated before performance is due, the nonbreaching party must begin to mitigate as soon as practicable and should not wait until the day performance is due to look for an alternative.
As long as the nonbreaching party makes a reasonable effort to mitigate, the success of that effort is not an issue in assessing damages. If a film producer’s original cameraman breaches the contract, and if the producer had diligently searched for a substitute cameraman, who cost $150 extra per week and it later came to light that the producer could have hired a cameraman for $100, the company is entitled nevertheless to damages based on the higher figure. Shirley MacLaine v. Twentieth Century-Fox Corporation, Section 16.6.4 "Limitation on Damages: Mitigation of Damages", is a well-known case involving mitigation of damages.
Certainty of Damages
A party can recover only that amount of damage in law which can be proved with reasonable certainty. Especially troublesome in this regard are lost profits and loss of goodwill. Alf is convinced that next spring the American public will be receptive to polka-dotted belts with his name monogrammed in front. He arranges for a garment factory to produce 300,000 such belts, but the factory, which takes a large deposit from him in advance, misplaces the order and does not produce the belts in time for the selling season. When Alf discovers the failure, he cannot raise more money to go elsewhere, and his project fails. He cannot recover damages for lost profits because the number is entirely speculative; no one can prove how much he would have made, if anything. He can, instead, seek restitution of the monies advanced. If he had rented a warehouse to store the belts, he would also be able to recover his reliance interest.
Proof of lost profits is not always difficult: a seller can generally demonstrate the profit he would have made on the sale to the buyer who has breached. The problem is more difficult, as Alf’s case demonstrates, when it is the seller who has breached. A buyer who contracts for but does not receive raw materials, supplies, and inventory cannot show definitively how much he would have netted from the use he planned to make of them. But he is permitted to prove how much money he has made in the past under similar circumstances, and he may proffer financial and market data, surveys, and expert testimony to support his claim. When proof of profits is difficult or impossible, the courts may grant a nonmonetary award, such as specific performance.
Loss of Power of Avoidance
You will recall that there are several circumstances when a person may avoid a contract: duress, undue influence, misrepresentation (fraudulent, negligent, or innocent), or mistake. But a party may lose the right to avoid, and thus the right to any remedy, in several ways.
If a party is the victim of fraud, she must act promptly to rescind at common law, or she will lose the right and her remedy will be limited to damages in tort. (This is discussed a bit more in Section 16.5.7 "Election of Remedies".)
An infant who waits too long to disaffirm (again, delay) will have ratified the contract, as will one who—notwithstanding being the victim of duress, undue influence, mistake, or any other grounds for avoidance—continues to operate under the contract with full knowledge of his right to avoid. Of course the disability that gave rise to the power of avoidance must have passed before affirmation works.
Rights of Third Parties
The intervening rights of third parties may terminate the power to avoid. For example, Michelle, a minor, sells her watch to Betty Buyer. Up to and within a reasonable time after reaching majority, Michelle could avoid—disaffirm—the contract. But if, before that time, Betty sells the watch to a third party, Michelle cannot get it back from the third party. Similarly, Salvador Seller sells his car to Bill Buyer, who pays for it with a bad check. If the check bounces, Salvador can rescind the deal—Bill’s consideration (the money represented by the check) has failed: Salvador could return the check and get his car back. But if, before the check from Bill bounces, Bill in turn sells the car to Pat Purchaser, Salvador cannot avoid the contract. Pat gets to keep the car. There are some exceptions to this rule.
Agreement of the Parties Limiting Remedies
Certainly it is the general rule that parties are free to enter into any kind of a contract they want, so long as it is not illegal or unconscionable. The inclusion into the contract of a liquidated damages clause—mentioned previously—is one means by which the parties may make an agreement affecting damages. But beyond that, as we saw in Chapter 12 "Legality", it is very common for one side to limit its liability, or for one side to agree that it will pursue only limited remedies against the other in case of breach. Such agree-to limitations on the availability of remedies are generally OK provided they are conspicuous, bargained-for, and not unconscionable. In consumer transactions, courts are more likely to find a contracted-for limitation of remedies unconscionable than in commercial transactions, and under the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) there are further restrictions on contractual remedy limitations.
For example, Juan buys ten bags of concrete to make a counter and stand for his expensive new barbecue. The bags have this wording in big print: “Attention. Our sole liability in case this product is defective will be to provide you with a like quantity of nondefective material. We will not be liable for any other damages, direct or indirect, express or implied.” That’s fine. If the concrete is defective, the concrete top breaks, and Juan’s new barbecue is damaged, he will get nothing but some new bags of good concrete. He could have shopped around to find somebody who would deliver concrete with no limitation on liability. As it is, his remedies are limited by the agreement he entered into.
Election of Remedies
At Common Law
Another limitation on remedies—at common law—is the concept of election of remedies. The nature of a loss resulting from a contract breach may be such as to entitle one party to a choice among two or more means to redress the grievance, where the choices are mutually exclusive.
At classic common law, a person who was defrauded had an election of remedies: she could, immediately upon discovering the fraud, rescind, or she could retain the item (real estate or personal property) and attempt to remedy the fraudulently defective performance by suing for damages, but not both. Buyer purchases real estate from Seller for $300,000 and shortly discovers that Seller fraudulently misrepresented the availability of water. Buyer spends $60,000 trying to drill wells. Finally he gives up and sues Seller for fraud, seeking $360,000. Traditionally at common law, he would not get it. He should have rescinded upon discovery of the fraud. Now he can only get $60,000 in damages in tort.Merritt v. Craig, 746 A.2d 923 (Md. 2000). The purpose of the election of remedies doctrine is to prevent the victim of fraud from getting a double recovery, but it has come under increasing criticism. Here is one court’s observation: “A host of commentators support elimination of the election of remedies doctrine. A common theme is that the doctrine substitutes labels and formalism for inquiry into whether double recovery results in fact. The rigid doctrine goes to the other extreme, actually resulting in the under compensation of fraud victims and the protection of undeserving wrongdoers.”Head & Seemann, Inc. v. Gregg, 311 N.W.2d 667 (Wis. App. 1981).
Under the UCC
The doctrine of election of remedy has been rejected by the UCC, which means that the remedies are cumulative in nature. According to Section 2-703(1): “Whether the pursuit of one remedy bars another depends entirely on the facts of the individual case.” UCC, Section 2-721, provides that neither demand for rescission of the contract in the case of misrepresentation or fraud, nor the return or rejection of goods, bars a claim for damages or any other remedy permitted under the UCC for nonfraudulent breach (we will examine remedies for breach of sales contracts in Chapter 18 "Title and Risk of Loss").
Tort versus Contract
Frequently a contract breach may also amount to tortious conduct. A physician warrants her treatment as perfectly safe but performs the operation negligently, scarring the patient for life. The patient could sue for malpractice (tort) or for breach of warranty (contract). The choice involves at least four considerations:
- Statute of limitations. Most statutes of limitations prescribe longer periods for contract than for tort actions.
- Allowable damages. Punitive damages are more often permitted in tort actions, and certain kinds of injuries are compensable in tort but not in contract suits—for example, pain and suffering.
- Expert testimony. In most cases, the use of experts would be the same in either tort or contract suits, but in certain contract cases, the expert witness could be dispensed with, as, for example, in a contract case charging that the physician abandoned the patient.
- Insurance coverage. Most policies do not cover intentional torts, so a contract theory that avoids the element of willfulness would provide the plaintiff with a surer chance of recovering money damages.
Legal versus Extralegal Remedies
A party entitled to a legal remedy is not required to pursue it. Lawsuits are disruptive not merely to the individuals involved in the particular dispute but also to the ongoing relationships that may have grown up around the parties, especially if they are corporations or other business enterprises. Buyers must usually continue to rely on their suppliers, and sellers on their buyers. Not surprisingly, therefore, many businesspeople refuse to file suits even though they could, preferring to settle their disputes privately or even to ignore claims that they might easily press. Indeed, the decision whether or not to sue is not one for the lawyer but for the client, who must analyze a number of pros and cons, many of them not legal ones at all.
There are several limitations on the right of an aggrieved party to get contract remedies for a breach besides any limitations fairly agreed to by the parties. The damages suffered by the nonbreaching party must be reasonably foreseeable. The nonbreaching party must make a reasonable effort to mitigate damages, or the amount awarded will be reduced by the damages that could have been avoided. The party seeking damages must be able to explain within reason how much loss he has suffered as a result of the breach. If he cannot articulate with any degree of certainty—if the damages are really speculative—he will be entitled to nominal damages and that’s all. There are circumstances in which a party who could have got out of a contractual obligation—avoided it—loses the power to do so, and her remedy of avoidance is lost. Not infrequently, a person will enter into a contract for services or goods that contains a limitation on her right to damages in case the other side breaches. That’s all right unless the limitation is unconscionable. Sometimes parties are required to make an election of remedies: to choose among two or more possible bases of recovery. If the remedies are really mutually exclusive and one is chosen, the aggrieved party loses the right to pursue the others. And of course a person is always free not to pursue any remedy at all for breach of contract; that may be strategically or economically smart in some circumstances.
- When one party to a contract breaches, what duty, if any, is then imposed on the other party?
- A chef who has never owned her own restaurant sues a contractor who failed to finish building the chef’s first restaurant on time. She presents evidence of the profits made by similar restaurants that have been in business for some time. Is this good evidence of the damages she has suffered by the delay? To what damages is she entitled?
- Rebecca, seventeen years and ten months old, buys a party dress for $300. She wears it to the junior prom but determines it doesn’t look good on her. She puts it in her closet and forgets about it until six months later, when she decides to return it to the store. Is she now entitled to the remedy of rescission?
- What is the difference between rescission and restitution?
- Why are parties sometimes required to make an election of remedies?
EBWS, LLC v. Britly Corp.
928 A.2d 497 (Vt. 2007)
The Ransom family owns Rock Bottom Farm in Strafford, Vermont, where Earl Ransom owns a dairy herd and operates an organic dairy farm. In 2000, the Ransoms decided to build a creamery on-site to process their milk and formed EBWS, LLC to operate the dairy-processing plant and to market the plant’s products. In July 2000, Earl Ransom, on behalf of EBWS, met with Britly’s president to discuss building the creamery.…In January 2001, EBWS and Britly entered into a contract requiring Britly to construct a creamery building for EBWS in exchange for $160,318.…The creamery was substantially completed by April 15, 2001, and EBWS moved in soon afterward. On June 5, 2001, EBWS notified Britly of alleged defects in construction. [EBWS continued to use the creamery pending the necessity to vacate it for three weeks when repairs were commenced].
On September 12, 2001, EBWS filed suit against Britly for damages resulting from defective design and construction.…
Following a three-day trial, the jury found Britly had breached the contract and its express warranty, and awarded EBWS: (1) $38,020 in direct damages, and (2) $35,711 in consequential damages.…
…The jury’s award to EBWS included compensation for both direct and consequential damages that EBWS claimed it would incur while the facility closed for repairs. Direct damages [i.e., compensatory damages] are for “losses that naturally and usually flow from the breach itself,” and it is not necessary that the parties actually considered these damages. [Citation]. In comparison, special or consequential damages “must pass the tests of causation, certainty and foreseeability, and, in addition, be reasonably supposed to have been in the contemplation of both parties at the time they made the contract.”
…The court ruled that EBWS could not recover for lost profits because it was not a going concern at the time the contract was entered into, and profits were too speculative. The court concluded, however, that EBWS could submit evidence of other business losses, including future payment for unused milk and staff wages.…
At trial, Huyffer, the CEO of EBWS, testified that during a repairs closure the creamery would be required to purchase milk from adjacent Rock Bottom Farm, even though it could not process this milk. She admitted that such a requirement was self-imposed as there was no written output contract between EBWS and the farm to buy milk. In addition, Huyffer testified that EBWS would pay its employees during the closure even though EBWS has no written contract to pay its employees when they are not working. The trial court allowed these elements of damages to be submitted to the jury, and the jury awarded EBWS consequential damages for unused milk and staff wages.
On appeal, Britly contends that because there is no contractual or legal obligation for EBWS to purchase milk or pay its employees, these are not foreseeable damages. EBWS counters that it is common knowledge that cows continue to produce milk, even if the processing plant is not working, and thus it is foreseeable that this loss would occur. We conclude that these damages are not the foreseeable result of Britly’s breach of the construction contract and reverse the award.…
[W]e conclude that…it is not reasonable to expect Britly to foresee that its failure to perform under the contract would result in this type of damages. While we are sympathetic to EBWS’s contention that the cows continue to produce milk, even when the plant is closed down, this fact alone is not enough to demonstrate that buying and dumping milk is a foreseeable result of Britly’s breach of the construction contract. Here, the milk was produced by a separate and distinct entity, Rock Bottom Farm, which sold the milk to EBWS.…
Similarly, EBWS maintained no employment agreements with its employees obligating it to pay wages during periods of closure for repairs, dips in market demand, or for any other reason. Any losses EBWS might suffer in the future because it chooses to pay its employees during a plant closure for repairs would be a voluntary expense and not in Britly’s contemplation at the time it entered the construction contract. It is not reasonable to expect Britly to foresee losses incurred as a result of agreements that are informal in nature and carry no legal obligation on EBWS to perform. “[P]arties are not presumed to know the condition of each other’s affairs nor to take into account contracts with a third party that is not communicated.” [Citation] While it is true that EBWS may have business reasons to pay its employees even without a contractual obligation, for example, to ensure employee loyalty, no evidence was introduced at trial by EBWS to support a sound rationale for such considerations. Under these circumstances, this business decision is beyond the scope of what Britly could have reasonably foreseen as damages for its breach of contract.…
In addition, the actual costs of the wages and milk are uncertain.…[T]he the milk and wages here are future expenses, for which no legal obligation was assumed by EBWS, and which are separate from the terms of the parties’ contract. We note that at the time of the construction contract EBWS had not yet begun to operate as a creamery and had no history of buying milk or paying employees. See [Citation] (explaining that profits for a new business are uncertain and speculative and not recoverable). Thus, both the cost of the milk and the number and amount of wages of future employees that EBWS might pay in the event of a plant closure for repairs are uncertain.
Award for consequential damages is reversed.…
- Why, according to EBWS’s CEO, would EBWS be required to purchase milk from adjacent Rock Bottom Farm, even though it could not process this milk?
- Surely it is well known in Vermont dairy country that dairy farmers can’t simply stop milking cows when no processing plant is available to take the milk—the cows will soon stop producing. Why was EBWS then not entitled to those damages which it will certainly suffer when the creamery is down for repairs?
- Britly (the contractor) must have known EBWS had employees that would be idled when the creamery shut down for repairs. Why was it not liable for their lost wages?
- What could EBWS have done at the time of contracting to protect itself against the damages it would incur in the event the creamery suffered downtime due to faulty construction?
Watson v. Ingram
881 P.2d 247 (Wash. 1994)
…In the summer of 1990, Wayne Watson offered to buy James Ingram’s Bellingham home for $355,000, with a $15,000 [about $24,000 in 2010 dollars] earnest money deposit.…
Under the agreement, the entire amount of the purchase price was due in cash on or before December 3, 1990.…The agreement required Watson to pay a $15,000 earnest money deposit into escrow at Kelstrup Realty, and provided that “[i]n the event of default by Buyer, earnest money shall be forfeited to Seller as liquidated damages, unless Seller elects to seek actual damages or specific performance. Lastly, the agreement contained a provision entitled “BUYER’S REPRESENTATIONS,” which stated, “Buyer represents that buyer has sufficient funds available to close this sale in accordance with this agreement, and is not relying on any contingent source of funds unless otherwise set forth in this agreement”.…
On November 10, 1990, Watson sent a written proposal to Ingram seeking to modify the original agreement. The proposed modification would have allowed Watson to defer paying $54,000 of the $355,000 sale price for between 6 and 12 months after the scheduled December closing date. In exchange, Ingram would receive a second lien position on certain real estate Watson owned.
According to Ingram, the November 10 proposal was the first time he realized Watson did not have financing readily available for the purchase of the house. Ingram notified Watson on November 12, 1990, that he would not agree to modify the original agreement and intended to strictly enforce its terms. Ingram was involved in a child custody suit in California and wanted to move to that state as soon as possible.…[Further efforts by Ingram to sell to third parties and by Watson to get an extension from Ingram failed.]
In September 1991, Ingram finally sold the house to a third party for $355,000, the same price that Watson had agreed to pay in December 1990.
Ingram and Watson each sought to recover Watson’s $15,000 earnest money held in escrow. On December 4, 1990, Ingram wrote to Kelstrup Realty, indicating he was entitled to the $15,000 earnest money in escrow because Watson had defaulted. In January 1991, Watson filed this action to recover the earnest money, alleging it amounted to a penalty and Ingram had suffered no actual damages.…
The trial court found the earnest money “was clearly intended by both parties to be non-refundable” if Watson defaulted and determined $15,000 was “a reasonable forecast by [Ingram and Watson] of damages that would be incurred by [Ingram] if [Watson] failed to complete the purchase”. The court entered judgment in favor of Ingram for the amount of the earnest money plus interest. The court also awarded Ingram his attorney fees pursuant to the parties’ agreement. The Court of Appeals, Division One, affirmed. Watson now appeals to this court.
This case presents a single issue for review: whether the parties’ contract provision requiring Watson to forfeit a $15,000 nonrefundable earnest money deposit is enforceable as liquidated damages. Liquidated damages clauses are favored in Washington, and courts will uphold them if the sums involved do not amount to a penalty or are otherwise unlawful. [Citation] To determine whether liquidated damages clauses are enforceable, Washington courts have applied a 2-part test from the Restatement of Contracts.…Liquidated damages clauses are upheld if the following two factors are satisfied:
First, the amount fixed must be a reasonable forecast of just compensation for the harm that is caused by the breach. Second, the harm must be such that it is incapable or very difficult of ascertainment.
The question before this court is whether this test is to be applied as of the time of contract formation (prospectively) or as of the time of trial (retrospectively). We have previously held, the “[r]easonableness of the forecast will be judged as of the time the contract was entered”. [Citations]
In contrast, a prior Division One opinion relied upon by Petitioner held the reasonableness of the estimate of damages and the difficulty of ascertainment of harm should be measured as of the time of trial, and earnest money agreements should not be enforceable as liquidated damages if the nonbreaching party does not suffer actual damage. [Citations]
We…adopt the date of contract formation as the proper timeframe for evaluating the Restatement test. The prospective approach concentrates on whether the liquidated sum represents a reasonable prediction of the harm to the seller if the buyer breaches the agreement, and ignores actual damages except as evidence of the reasonableness of the estimate of potential damage.
We believe this approach better fulfills the underlying purposes of liquidated damages clauses and gives greater weight to the parties’ expectations. Liquidated damages permit parties to allocate business and litigation risks. Even if the estimates of damages are not exact, parties can allocate and quantify those risks and can negotiate adjustments to the contract price in light of the allocated risks. Under the prospective approach, courts will enforce the parties’ allocation of risk so long as the forecasts appear reasonable when made. [Citations]
In addition to permitting parties to allocate risks, liquidated damages provisions lend certainty to the parties’ agreements and permit parties to resolve disputes efficiently in the event of a breach. Rather than litigating the amount of actual damages, the nonbreaching party must only establish the reasonableness of the agreement. The prospective approach permits parties to rely on their stipulated amounts without having to precisely establish damages at trial. In contrast, if the reasonableness of the amount is judged retrospectively, against the damage actually suffered, the “parties must fully litigate (at great expense and delay) that which they sought not to litigate.” [Citation].
Petitioner argues the prospective approach treats buyers unfairly because it permits sellers to retain earnest money deposits even when the seller suffers no actual damage, and this violates the principle that contract damages should be compensatory only. He further contends that by evaluating parties’ liquidated damages agreements against actual damages established at trial, courts can most effectively determine whether such agreements were reasonable and fair.
We disagree. As this court has previously explained, “[w]e are loath to interfere with the rights of parties to contract as they please between themselves [Citations] It is not the role of the court to enforce contracts so as to produce the most equitable result. The parties themselves know best what motivations and considerations influenced their bargaining, and, while, “[t]he bargain may be an unfortunate one for the delinquent party,…it is not the duty of courts of common law to relieve parties from the consequences of their own improvidence…” [Citations]
The retrospective approach fails to give proper weight to the parties’ negotiations. At the time of contract formation, unpredictable market fluctuations and variations in possible breaches make it nearly impossible for contracting parties to predict “precisely or within a narrow range the amount of damages that would flow from breach.” [Citations]. However, against this backdrop of uncertainty, the negotiated liquidated damages sum represents the parties’ best estimate of the value of the breach and permits the parties to allocate and incorporate these risks in their negotiations. Under the prospective approach, a court will uphold the parties’ agreed upon liquidated sum so long as the amount represents a reasonable attempt to compensate the nonbreaching party. On the other hand, if the reasonableness of a liquidated damages provision is evaluated under a retrospective approach, the parties cannot confidently rely on their agreement because the liquidated sum will not be enforced if, at trial, it is not a close approximation of the damage suffered or if no actual damages are proved.…
Having adopted the date of contract formation as the proper timeframe for evaluating the Restatement test, the Restatement’s second requirement loses independent significance. The central inquiry is whether the specified liquidated damages were reasonable at the time of contract formation.…
We also agree with the Court of Appeals that in the context of real estate agreements, a requirement that damages be difficult to prove at trial would undermine the very purposes of the liquidated damage provision: “certainty, assurance that the contract will be performed, and avoidance of litigation”. [Citation] It would “encourage litigation in virtually every case in which the sale did not close, regardless of whether the earnest money deposit was a reasonable estimate of the seller’s damages.” [Citation]
In sum, so long as the agreed upon earnest money agreement, viewed prospectively, is a reasonable prediction of potential damage suffered by the seller, the agreement should be enforced “without regard to the retrospective calculation of actual damages or the ease with which they may be proved”. The prospective difficulty of estimating potential damage is a factor to be used in assessing the reasonableness of the earnest money agreement…
The decision of the Court of Appeals is affirmed.
- What does the court here mean when it says that liquidated damages clauses allow the parties to “allocate and incorporate the risks [of the transaction] in their negotiations”?
- Why is it relevant that the plaintiff Ingram was engaged in a child-custody dispute and wanted to move to California as soon as possible?
- What, in plain language, is the issue here?
- How does the court’s resolution of the issue seem to the court the better analysis?
- Why did the plaintiff get to keep the $15,000 when he really suffered no damages?
- Express the controlling rule of law out of this case.
Injunctions and Negative Covenants
Madison Square Garden Corporation v. Carnera
52 F.2d 47 (2d Cir. Ct. App. 1931)
On January 13, 1931, the plaintiff and defendant by their duly authorized agents entered into the following agreement in writing:
1. Carnera agrees that he will render services as a boxer in his next contest (which contest, hereinafter called the ‘First Contest.’…
9. Carnera shall not, pending the holding of the First Contest, render services as a boxer in any major boxing contest, without the written permission of the Garden in each case had and obtained. A major contest is understood to be one with Sharkey, Baer, Campolo, Godfrey, or like grade heavyweights, or heavyweights who shall have beaten any of the above subsequent to the date hereof. If in any boxing contest engaged in by Carnera prior to the holding of the First Contest, he shall lose the same, the Garden shall at its option, to be exercised by a two weeks’ notice to Carnera in writing, be without further liability under the terms of this agreement to Carnera. Carnera shall not render services during the continuance of the option referred to in paragraph 8 hereof for any person, firm or corporation other than the Garden. Carnera shall, however, at all times be permitted to engage in sparring exhibitions in which no decision is rendered and in which the heavy weight championship title is not at stake, and in which Carnera boxes not more than four rounds with any one opponent.’…
Thereafter the defendant, without the permission of the plaintiff, written or otherwise, made a contract to engage in a boxing contest with the Sharkey mentioned in paragraph 9 of the agreement above quoted, and by the terms thereof the contest was to take place before the first contest mentioned in the defendant’s contract with the plaintiff was to be held.
The plaintiff then brought this suit to restrain the defendant from carrying out his contract to box Sharkey, and obtained the preliminary injunction order, from which this appeal was taken. Jurisdiction is based on diversity of citizenship and the required amount is involved.
The District Court has found on affidavits which adequately show it that the defendant’s services are unique and extraordinary. A negative covenant in a contract for such personal services is enforceable by injunction where the damages for a breach are incapable of ascertainment. [Citations]
The defendant points to what is claimed to be lack of consideration for his negative promise, in that the contract is inequitable and contains no agreement to employ him. It is true that there is no promise in so many words to employ the defendant to box in a contest with Stribling or Schmeling, but the agreement read as a whole binds the plaintiff to do just that, provided either Stribling or Schmeling becomes the contestant as the result of the match between them and can be induced to box the defendant. The defendant has agreed to ‘render services as a boxer’ for the plaintiff exclusively, and the plaintiff has agreed to pay him a definite percentage of the gate receipts as his compensation for so doing. The promise to employ the defendant to enable him to earn the compensation agreed upon is implied to the same force and effect as though expressly stated. [Citations] The fact that the plaintiff’s implied promise is conditioned, with respect to the contest with the winner of the Stribling-Schmeling match, upon the consent of that performer, does not show any failure of consideration for the defendant’s promise, [Citation].
As we have seen, the contract is valid and enforceable. It contains a restrictive covenant which may be given effect. Whether a preliminary injunction shall be issued under such circumstances rests in the sound discretion of the court. [Citation] The District Court, in its discretion, did issue the preliminary injunction.…
- Why did the plaintiff not want the defendant to engage in any boxing matches until and except the ones arranged by the plaintiff?
- What assertion did the defendant make as to why his promise was not enforceable? Why wasn’t that argument accepted by the court?
- If the defendant had refused to engage in a boxing match arranged by the plaintiff, would a court force him to do what he had promised?
Limitation on Damages: Mitigation of Damages
Shirley MacLaine Parker v. Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation
474 P.2d 689 (Cal. 1970)
Defendant Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation appeals from a summary judgment granting to plaintiff the recovery of agreed compensation under a written contract for her services as an actress in a motion picture. As will appear, we have concluded that the trial court correctly ruled in plaintiff’s favor and that the judgment should be affirmed.
Plaintiff is well known as an actress.…Under the contract, dated August 6, 1965, plaintiff was to play the female lead in defendant’s contemplated production of a motion picture entitled “Bloomer Girl.” The contract provided that defendant would pay plaintiff a minimum “guaranteed compensation” of $53,571.42 per week for 14 weeks commencing May 23, 1966, for a total of $750,000 [about $5,048,000 in 2010 dollars]. Prior to May 1966 defendant decided not to produce the picture and by a letter dated April 4, 1966, it notified plaintiff of that decision and that it would not “comply with our obligations to you under” the written contract.
By the same letter and with the professed purpose “to avoid any damage to you,” defendant instead offered to employ plaintiff as the leading actress in another film tentatively entitled “Big Country, Big Man” (hereinafter, “Big Country”). The compensation offered was identical, as were 31 of the 34 numbered provisions or articles of the original contract. Unlike “Bloomer Girl,” however, which was to have been a musical production, “Big Country” was a dramatic “western type” movie. “Bloomer Girl” was to have been filmed in California; “Big Country” was to be produced in Australia. Also, certain terms in the proffered contract varied from those of the original. Plaintiff was given one week within which to accept; she did not and the offer lapsed. Plaintiff then commenced this action seeking recovery of the agreed guaranteed compensation.
The complaint sets forth two causes of action. The first is for money due under the contract; the second, based upon the same allegations as the first, is for damages resulting from defendant’s breach of contract. Defendant in its answer admits the existence and validity of the contract, that plaintiff complied with all the conditions, covenants and promises and stood ready to complete the performance, and that defendant breached and “anticipatorily repudiated” the contract. It denies, however, that any money is due to plaintiff either under the contract or as a result of its breach, and pleads as an affirmative defense to both causes of action plaintiff’s allegedly deliberate failure to mitigate damages, asserting that she unreasonably refused to accept its offer of the leading role in “Big Country.”
Plaintiff moved for summary judgment…[T]he motion was granted…for $750,000 plus interest…in plaintiff’s favor. This appeal by defendant followed.…
The general rule is that the measure of recovery by a wrongfully discharged employee is the amount of salary agreed upon for the period of service, less the amount which the employer affirmatively proves the employee has earned or with reasonable effort might have earned from other employment. [Citation] However, before projected earnings from other employment opportunities not sought or accepted by the discharged employee can be applied in mitigation, the employer must show that the other employment was comparable, or substantially similar, to that of which the employee has been deprived; the employee’s rejection of or failure to seek other available employment of a different or inferior kind may not be resorted to in order to mitigate damages. [Citations]
In the present case defendant has raised no issue of reasonableness of efforts by plaintiff to obtain other employment; the sole issue is whether plaintiff’s refusal of defendant’s substitute offer of “Big Country” may be used in mitigation. Nor, if the “Big Country” offer was of employment different or inferior when compared with the original “Bloomer Girl” employment, is there an issue as to whether or not plaintiff acted reasonably in refusing the substitute offer. Despite defendant’s arguments to the contrary, no case cited or which our research has discovered holds or suggests that reasonableness is an element of a wrongfully discharged employee’s option to reject, or fail to seek, different or inferior employment lest the possible earnings therefrom be charged against him in mitigation of damages.
Applying the foregoing rules to the record in the present case, with all intendments in favor of the party opposing the summary judgment motion—here, defendant—it is clear that the trial court correctly ruled that plaintiff’s failure to accept defendant’s tendered substitute employment could not be applied in mitigation of damages because the offer of the “Big Country” lead was of employment both different and inferior, and that no factual dispute was presented on that issue. The mere circumstance that “Bloomer Girl” was to be a musical review calling upon plaintiff’s talents as a dancer as well as an actress, and was to be produced in the City of Los Angeles, whereas “Big Country” was a straight dramatic role in a “Western Type” story taking place in an opal mine in Australia, demonstrates the difference in kind between the two employments; the female lead as a dramatic actress in a western style motion picture can by no stretch of imagination be considered the equivalent of or substantially similar to the lead in a song-and-dance production.
Additionally, the substitute “Big Country” offer proposed to eliminate or impair the director and screenplay approvals accorded to plaintiff under the original “Bloomer Girl” contract, and thus constituted an offer of inferior employment. No expertise or judicial notice is required in order to hold that the deprivation or infringement of an employee’s rights held under an original employment contract converts the available “other employment” relied upon by the employer to mitigate damages, into inferior employment which the employee need not seek or accept. [Citation]
In view of the determination that defendant failed to present any facts showing the existence of a factual issue with respect to its sole defense—plaintiff’s rejection of its substitute employment offer in mitigation of damages—we need not consider plaintiff’s further contention that for various reasons, including the provisions of the original contract set forth in footnote 1, Ante, plaintiff was excused from attempting to mitigate damages.
The judgment is affirmed.
- Why did Ms. MacLaine refuse to accept the employment opportunity offered by the defendant?
- Why did the defendant think it should not be liable for any damages as a result of its admitted breach of the original contract?
- Who has the burden of proof on mitigation issues—who has to show that no mitigation occurred?
- Express the controlling rule of law out of this case.
16.7 Summary and Exercises
Contract remedies serve to protect three different interests: an expectation interest (the benefit bargained for), a reliance interest (loss suffered by relying on the contract), and a restitution interest (benefit conferred on the promisor). In broad terms, specific performance addresses the expectation interest, monetary damages address all three, and restitution addresses the restitution interest.
The two general categories of remedies are legal and equitable. In the former category are compensatory, consequential, incidental, nominal, liquated, and (rarely) punitive damages. In the latter category—if legal remedies are inadequate—are specific performance, injunction, and restitution.
There are some limitations or restrictions on the availability of damages: they must pass the tests of foreseeability and certainty. They must be reasonably mitigated, if possible. And liquidated damages must be reasonable—not a penalty. In some situations, a person can lose the remedy of rescission—the power to avoid a contract—when the rights of third parties intervene. In some cases a person is required to make an election of remedies: to choose one remedy among several, and when the one is chosen, the others are not available any more.
- Owner of an auto repair shop hires Contractor to remodel his shop but does not mention that two days after the scheduled completion date, Owner is to receive five small US Army personnel carrier trucks for service, with a three-week deadline to finish the job and turn the trucks over to the army. The contract between Owner and the army has a liquidated damages clause calling for $300 a day for every day trucks are not operable after the deadline. Contractor is five days late in finishing the remodel. Can Owner claim the $1,500 as damages against Contractor as a consequence of the latter’s tardy completion of the contract? Explain.
- Inventor devised an electronic billiard table that looked like a regular billiard table, but when balls dropped into the pocket, various electronic lights and scorekeeping devices activated. Inventor contracted with Contractor to manufacture ten prototypes and paid him $50,000 in advance, on a total owing of $100,000 ($10,000 for each completed table). After the tables were built to accommodate electronic fittings, Inventor repudiated the contract. Contractor broke the ten tables up, salvaged $1,000 of wood for other billiard tables, and used the rest for firewood. The ten intact tables, without electronics, could have been sold for $500 each ($5,000 total). Contractor then sued Inventor for the profit Contractor would have made had Inventor not breached. To what, if anything, is Contractor entitled by way of damages and why?
- Calvin, a promising young basketball and baseball player, signed a multiyear contract with a professional basketball team after graduating from college. After playing basketball for one year, he decided he would rather play baseball and breached his contract with the basketball team. What remedy could the team seek?
- Theresa leased a one-bedroom apartment from Landlady for one year at $500 per month. After three months, she vacated the apartment. A family of five wanted to rent the apartment, but Landlady refused. Three months later—six months into what would have been Theresa’s term—Landlady managed to rent the apartment to Tenant for $400 per month. How much does Theresa owe, and why?
Plaintiff, a grocery store, contracted with Defendant, a burglar alarm company, for Defendant to send guards to Plaintiff's premises and to notify the local police if the alarm was activated. The contract had this language: “It is agreed that the Contractor is not an insurer, that the payments here are based solely on the value of the service in the maintenance of the system described, that it is impracticable and extremely difficult to fix the actual damages, if any, which may proximately result from a failure to perform its services, and in case of failure to perform such services and a resulting loss, its liability shall be limited to $500 as liquidated damages, and not as a penalty, and this liability shall be exclusive.”
A burglary took place and the alarm was activated, but Defendant failed to respond promptly. The burglars left with $330,000. Is the liquidated damages clause—the limitation on Plaintiff’s right to recover—valid?
- The decedent, father of the infant Plaintiff, was killed in a train accident. Testimony showed he was a good and reliable man. Through a representative, the decedent’s surviving child, age five, recovered judgment against the railroad (Defendant). Defendant objected to expert testimony that inflation would probably continue at a minimum annual rate of 5 percent for the next thirteen years (until the boy attained his majority), which was used to calculate the loss in support money caused by the father’s death. The calculations, Defendant said, were unreasonably speculative and uncertain, and damages must be proven with reasonable certainty. Is the testimony valid?
- Plaintiff produced and directed a movie for Defendant, but contrary to their agreement, Plaintiff was not given screen credit in the edited film (his name was not shown). The film was screened successfully for nearly four years. Plaintiff then sued (1) for damages for loss of valuable publicity or advertising because his screen credits were omitted for the years and (2) for an injunction against future injuries. The jury awarded Plaintiff $25,000 on the first count. On the second count, the court held Plaintiff should be able to “modify the prints in his personal possession to include his credits.” But Plaintiff appealed, claiming that Defendant still had many unmodified prints in its possession and that showing those films would cause future damages. What remedy is available to Plaintiff?Tamarind Lithography Workshop v. Sanders, 193 Cal. Rptr. 409 (Calif. Ct. App., 1983).
- In 1929 Kerr Steamship Company, Inc. (Plaintiff), delivered to Defendant, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), a fairly long telegram—in code—to be transmitted to Manila, Philippine Islands, with instructions about loading one of Kerr’s ships. By mistake, the telegraph was mislaid and not delivered. As a result of the failure to transmit it, the cargo was not loaded and the freight was lost in an amount of $6,675.29 [about $84,000 in 2010 dollars], profit that would have been earned if the message had been carried. Plaintiff said that because the telegram was long and because the sender was a ship company, RCA personnel should have known it was important information dealing with shipping and therefore RCA should be liable for the consequential damages flowing from the failure to send it. Is RCA liable?
- Defendant offered to buy a house from Plaintiff. She represented, verbally and in writing, that she had $15,000 to $20,000 of equity in another house and would pay this amount to Plaintiff after selling it. She knew, however, that she had no such equity. Relying on these intentionally fraudulent representations, Plaintiff accepted Defendant’s offer to buy, and the parties entered into a land contract. After taking occupancy, Defendant failed to make any of the contract payments. Plaintiff’s investigation then revealed the fraud. Based on the fraud, Plaintiff sought rescission, ejectment, and recovery for five months of lost use of the property and out-of-pocket expenses. Defendant claimed that under the election of remedies doctrine, Plaintiff seller could not both rescind the contract and get damages for its breach. How should the court rule?
- Buyers contracted to purchase a house being constructed by Contractor. The contract contained this clause: “Contractor shall pay to the owners or deduct from the total contract price $100.00 per day as liquidated damages for each day after said date that the construction is not completed and accepted by the Owners and Owners shall not arbitrarily withhold acceptance.” Testimony established the rental value of the home at $400–$415 per month. Is the clause enforceable?
Contract remedies protect
- a restitution interest
- a reliance interest
- an expectation interest
- all of the above
A restitution interest is
- the benefit for which the promisee bargained
- the loss suffered by relying on the contract
- that which restores any benefit one party conferred on the other
- none of the above
When breach of contract caused no monetary loss, the plaintiff is entitled to
- special damages
- nominal damages
- consequential damages
- no damages
Damages attributable to losses that flow from events that do not occur in the ordinary course of events are
- incidental damages
- liquidated damages
- consequential damages
- punitive damages
Restitution is available
- when the contract was avoided because of incapacity
- when the other party breached
- when the party seeking restitution breached
- all of the above