Risky Business : “Foreseeable” Damages in Commercial Transactions

Intuitively, contracting parties in commercial transactions understand that legal consequences follow a breach of contract: If a party fails to deliver a product as promised, the breaching party can be liable for the cost to correct the breach; but what is that cost?

Say, for example, a business cancels an order to provide parts to a long-time customer because the relationship has gone sour. Legally, the liability for that breach of contract may extend beyond the cost of the order. A breaching party is liable for damages that are a direct consequence of the failure to perform and that were foreseeable at the time the contract was made, which may include lost profit. If the breach was intentional or malicious, the party’s liability may extend even to direct damages that were not foreseeable.

The business that cancelled the order now faces a jury’s decision to identify the direct and foreseeable losses, a decision that, by its nature, is vague. However, the law imposes a limit on the jury’s prerogative to decide the damages. Even for a bad faith breach of contract, liability arises only for the direct, immediate consequences of the breach and there should be no liability for damages determined to be remote, indirect, or that have no necessary relation to the breach.

In a recent case, a jury found that a defendant boat engine manufacturer breached its contract with plaintiff boat manufacturer by cancelling a purchase order for engines, and further, that the engine manufacturer was in bad faith. The jury awarded $1.8 million in foreseeable lost revenues and $1.3 million in unforeseeable lost profits. The trial court threw out the “unforeseen” portion of the award because it was not a direct damage, and emphasized that a breaching party does not “become the insurer for all misfortunes that may arise from the breach.”

The boat manufacturer had argued that the cash flow expected from the sale of the boats rendered engine-less by the breach would have been invested in more personnel and capital to grow its northwest division. But, because of depleted cash flow from lost sales, that opportunity was lost. The court found, as a matter of law, that this loss was not a direct consequence of the breach, and thus, regardless of the bad faith, was not a recoverable contract damage. Simply, loss of cash flow in one part of the business that had a ripple effect in a separate division was too indirect to be a recoverable damage. See  Marine Power Holding, LLC v. Malibu Boats, LLC, 2016 WL 7241560 (E.D. La. 12/15/2016).

By contrast, courts have found that loss of cash flow is recoverable where directly related to the damages suffered, such as where breach of a contract to deliver chickens to a chicken farmer caused the forced sale of the chicken farm. See Volentine v. Raeford Farms of La.,  50-698 (La.App. 2 Cir. 8/15/16), 201 So.3d 325.

Failure to perform on a contract exposes a business to more than it may realize. Understanding this risk allows for smarter decisions before the breach.