You are here


15 January, 2016 - 09:33

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. 1

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 (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., Consequential Damages , is a case that represents a modern application of the rule of Hadley v. Baxendaleon the issue of foreseeability of consequential damages.