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16.6 Cases

Consequential Damages

EBWS, LLC v. Britly Corp.

928 A.2d 497 (Vt. 2007)

Reiber, C.J.

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.…

Case Questions

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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?

Liquidated Damages

Watson v. Ingram

881 P.2d 247 (Wash. 1994)

Johnson, J.

…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.

Case Questions

  1. 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”?
  2. 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?
  3. What, in plain language, is the issue here?
  4. How does the court’s resolution of the issue seem to the court the better analysis?
  5. Why did the plaintiff get to keep the $15,000 when he really suffered no damages?
  6. 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)

Chase, J.

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.…

Order affirmed.

Case Questions

  1. Why did the plaintiff not want the defendant to engage in any boxing matches until and except the ones arranged by the plaintiff?
  2. What assertion did the defendant make as to why his promise was not enforceable? Why wasn’t that argument accepted by the court?
  3. 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)

Burke, Justice.

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.

Case Questions

  1. Why did Ms. MacLaine refuse to accept the employment opportunity offered by the defendant?
  2. Why did the defendant think it should not be liable for any damages as a result of its admitted breach of the original contract?
  3. Who has the burden of proof on mitigation issues—who has to show that no mitigation occurred?
  4. Express the controlling rule of law out of this case.