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Liquidated Damages

15 January, 2016 - 09:33

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.


  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.