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16.3 Legal Remedies: Damages

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand what is meant when it is said that damages are a legal remedy (as opposed to an equitable remedy).
  2. Understand the names and purposes of the six types of remedies.
  3. Know when liquidated damages will be allowed.
  4. 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.

Compensatory Damages

Damages paid to directly compensate the nonbreaching party for the value of what was not done or performed are compensatory damagesIn contract, damages paid to compensate the nonbreaching party for the direct loss suffered.. 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 volumeDamages for loss of profits on an item of inventory. 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.

Incidental Damages

In addition to compensatory damages, the nonbreaching party may recover incidental damagesCompensation for commercially reasonable expenses incurred as a result of the other party’s breach.. 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.

Consequential Damages

A consequential loss is addressed with consequential damagesThose losses or injuries which are a result of a breach of contract but are not direct and immediate.. 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".

Nominal Damages

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 damagesDamages in name only, as where actual damages are nonexistent or cannot be proved.. 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.

Liquidated Damages

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 damagesDamages agreed to in the contract that are payable in case of breach. 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

Punitive damagesDamages to punish the breaching party. 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.

Key Takeaway

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.


  1. What is the difference between a legal remedy and an equitable remedy?
  2. What types of remedies are there, and what purpose does each serve?
  3. What must be shown if liquidated damages are to be allowed?
  4. Under what circumstances may punitive damages be allowed?