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.” 1The 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, Limitation on Damages: Mitigation of Damages, is a well-known case involving mitigation of damages.