A LIQUIDATED DAMAGES CLAUSE in a contract specifies an amount of damages that party is entitled to for a particular breach of that agreement. The purpose is to streamline, or even deter litigation altogether by setting a fixed amount for the breach. They are very useful in eliminating unpredictability, and ultimately costs. However, there are several rules that must be followed, or the clause will be invalidated by a Court.
First, the liquidated damages cannot be a penalty—the amount specified must be reasonable under the circumstances, and cannot be “designed to substantially exceed the damages suffered, and…to serve as a threat to compel compliance through the imposition of charges bearing little or no relationship to the amount of actual loss.” Utility Consumers’ Action Network, Inc. v. AT&T Broadband, 135 Cal. App. 4th 1023, 1029 (2006); Cal. Civ. Code § 1671(b). A guiding principle is that any number picked cannot be arbitrary, and instead must be based on a reasonable attempt at determining a fair amount of compensation for the breach.
There are further rules if the clause is contained in a contract for the purchase or rental of personal property; a service used primarily for personal, family, or household purposes; or a residential lease. In those cases, a liquidated damages clause is allowed only when “it would be impracticable or extremely difficult to fix the actual damage.” Cal. Civ. Code § 1671(c) and (d).
Every situation is different, and should be evaluated by a qualified attorney. After all, if the clause unenforceable, it won’t save time, and may even ultimately cost more. It is always better to prevent problems before they occur, rather than waiting, and a well-crafted liquidated damages clause can be very effective in doing so.