Limiting Liability

A Basic Primer on Damages Terms in Contracts

Posted by on Mar 12, 2018 in Draft Your Contract, Limiting Liability

When entering into arrangements with clients or engaging vendors, startup companies may be faced with a confusing array of contractual terms, including terms that reference various types of damages. Such terms are worthy of attention due to their potential financial implications. For example, an agreement might include a limitation of liability clause that reads something like this: IN NO EVENT WILL LICENSOR BE LIABLE UNDER OR IN CONNECTION WITH THIS AGREEMENT OR ITS SUBJECT MATTER UNDER ANY LEGAL OR EQUITABLE THEORY, INCLUDING BREACH OF CONTRACT, TORT (INCLUDING NEGLIGENCE), STRICT LIABILITY, AND OTHERWISE, FOR ANY…CONSEQUENTIAL, INCIDENTAL, INDIRECT, EXEMPLARY, SPECIAL, OR PUNITIVE DAMAGES … You may understand that this provision purports to eliminate the software vendor’s (licensor’s) liability for these types of damages if there is a problem with the product in question. But what, for example, are consequential damages? Obtaining an attorney’s advice when signing contracts is advisable—particularly when they contain terms such as these. However, having a very basic understanding of these types of damages concepts is also helpful. Following is a very general, limited overview of damages concepts. Keep in mind that the meaning of these terms and the applicable categories can vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and based on the type of contract in question (e.g., a services contract versus a contract involving commercial goods, such as software). Measures of Damages There are a variety of theories and approaches to measuring damages used by courts in different contexts. The most common approach in situations involving the breach of a contract is to attempt to define the aggrieved party’s “expectation interest” and put them in the same position they would have been in had the contract not been breached. For example, Startup Company signs a contract with Slipshod Software, under which it pays Slipshod $100,000 for a software license. However, the software does not function. As a result, Startup Company incurs $10,000 in personnel costs finding and vetting alternative software with comparable features for its business, which it licenses for the best available price of $115,000. Due to the delay in securing the software, which Startup Company needed for its business, Startup Company loses two clients, which would have yielded $50,000 in profit. Startup Company/Slipshod Example $100,000 licensing cost for nonfunctioning software $10,000 additional expense in personnel costs $15,000 above $100,000 for licensing new functioning software $50,000 profit loss from clients who leave = $175,000 expectation damages Startup Company can argue that its expectation damages total $175,000, including the $100,000 it had paid Slipshod Software, the $10,000 in personnel costs in finding comparable alternative software, the extra $15,000 for the alternative software, and the $50,000 in lost profits.  Awarding these expectation damages approximates the position Startup Company would have been in if Slipshod Software’s product had functioned properly. Direct Damages  In the previous example, Startup Company can argue that it suffered $115,000 in direct damages (the $100,000 original licensing fee and the extra $15,000 it had to spend to obtain comparable alternative software). Direct damages, also called “general damages” in some contexts, are damages that naturally result from a breach of contract (i.e., the damages any party would usually incur in this situation). Here, any company that requires this type of software for its business would need to recoup its licensing fee from Slipshod Software and would need to obtain comparable alternative software at the best available price. Indirect Damages On the other hand, Startup Company’s other damages—personnel costs and lost profits—depend on other intervening factors that may not be typical or usual for other companies in this situation. Different companies’ exact personnel costs and lost profits may...

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When Disasters Plague Your Contract

Posted by on Jan 6, 2014 in Draft Your Contract, Limiting Liability

Part of the contract drafting process entails a bit of forward thinking: trying to identify and minimize ahead of time those things that could go wrong. If you’re new to the business world, or you’ve just entered into a new sector or started a new business, it can often be difficult to predict the downfalls your business may face– or the downfalls the other contracting party may face. There are some risks that every business must face which are more predictable than others. For example, every business at some point can expect to have an invoice dispute with a supplier, customer or independent contractor. On the other hand, there are those risks which are completely unpredictable and therefore less controllable. In the world of contracts, these risks are often called “force majeure events,” and well-drafted contracts usually contain a Force Majeure provision dealing with how such events will affect the parties’ respective obligations during the course of the contract. Force Majeure refers to acts of God and other events which are wholly outside of the control or influence of the party. Typical force majeure events include things like floods, fires, tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, riots, etc. While these events are pretty intuitive and it is hard to contest their occurrence being completely outside the control of the contracting party, there are some events, such as supplier bankruptcy and currency and market fluctuations which are less clear and which are often heavily negotiated. Force majeure provisions list the events which will constitute force majeure and set forth the parties’ respective obligations or release from obligations if the force majeure event occurs. For example, a force majeure provision may excuse a supplier from complying with a deadline or delivery date. As a startup company or entrepreneur, be cautious when you see a provision dealing with force majeure and, if you’re drafting an agreement, ask yourself how your contractual relationship may benefit from including a provision to help manage uncertainties. If you are interested in learning how to protect against risk, including force majeure risk, please contact an attorney or have an attorney review your agreement before you sign...

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App Development: Privacy Issues to Consider

Posted by on Dec 13, 2013 in Intellectual Property, Limiting Liability

If your company is developing an app, or having an app developed for it, there are key issues concerning privacy that your company should keep in mind. Apps can often require or facilitate access to personal information about end users which is typically regarded as private and subject to protective laws or regulations. Some apps gradually collect personal information about the end user as the end user navigates the app. Such information can include: financial account information health information location data personally identifiable information (e.g. name and address) There has been greater focus of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on privacy issues in mobile devices and apps. Therefore, to help avoid liability or harm to your company’s reputation as a result of privacy breaches, at the initial stages of the app development process and throughout your operations, your company should understand the types of personal information would be shared or accessed as a result of an end user navigating your company’s app. It’s never too early to consider privacy issues–especially if your app facilitates or requires access to information which is highly regulated, (e.g. financial, health or children information). If your company is developing and app or having an app developed, please contact an attorney who can help you minimize risk with respect to privacy...

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Your Liability Can Have Limits #3

Posted by on Aug 22, 2013 in Draft Your Contract, Limiting Liability, Practice Pointers

We’ve talked about 2 ways people limit liability in a contract (waiver of consequential damages and limitation of liability provisions). Another way you or someone you’re negotiating against can limit contractual liability is by including a provision that limits the time in which a party can bring a claim under the contract—i.e. shortening the statute of limitations that otherwise would apply. I know that sounds great, but: “what’s a statute of limitations”? A statute of limitations is essentially a law which establishes the maximum time after an event has occurred within which a party may commence legal proceedings. That is to say, a statute of limitations is a law that basically tells people how long they have to file suit. Statutes of limitations can vary depending on the type of claim or issue at hand. For example, in the State of Tennessee, the default statute of limitations for breach of contract claims is 6 years, meaning if 6 years has passed since the other party breached your contract, you probably can’t sue him or her for breach of contract (unless your contract says otherwise). The Tennessee Code sets forth statutes of limitations for many types of actions, including defamation, injury to personal property, products liability, medical malpractice, and the list goes on. Not only is it important to know the statute of limitation which may apply to your potential legal claims in any given situation, you should remember that you can often limit these statutory limitations contractually. It is common for contracts to include a provision that shortens the default statute of limitations to 3 years, 2 years or even 1 year. I’ve even seen a contract that attempted to limit the period to 3 months (!). Statute of limitation provisions are often placed at the back of the contract in a “governing law,” “dispute resolution” or “miscellaneous” section. A shorter statute of limitations can really take you for surprise if you dilly-dally or delay your decision concerning whether to file a claim. Obviously, if you are providing the good or service, you’d probably want the period to be shorter, and if you’re the one buying the good or service, you’d probably want the period to be longer. If your contract doesn’t say anything about it, don’t worry: the statutory default of 6 years would kick in. Don’t be afraid of these limitations, though, because, if used correctly, they can really help both parties understand and manage their respective risks under the contract. While there may be a way to argue around the statute of limitations provision in your contract, this is one reason why you should always read the fine print carefully (*or have an attorney review your contract and advise you concerning liability matters). If possible, you want to avoid having to hire an attorney to argue why your contract provisions should be...

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Your Liability Can Have Limits #2

Posted by on Aug 20, 2013 in Draft Your Contract, Limiting Liability, Practice Pointers

Last time we discussed limitation of liability provisions and how they can be used by you or your vendors, suppliers and other independent contractors to limit, reduce or otherwise control liability under a contract. Another way contracting parties can limit liability is by including a Waiver Of Consequential Damages provision. While this provision can be part of an overall limitation of liability provision, it is often set apart as its own provision. Without getting into a detailed discussion on what types of damages constitute consequential damages (this is an entirely separate blog discussion that will come later), we can use the most classic example of consequential damages: lost profits as the focus of our discussion. When you are providing goods or services to a client, you may want to consider including a waiver of consequential damages provision in order to better protect yourself in the event your client later claims that you breached the contract (or a warranty) and that caused them to lose profits or incur other consequential damages. Conversely, if you are buying goods or services, you will want to look very closely at any waiver language to see if your suppliers, vendors or independent contractors are attempting to waive responsibility for any consequential damages, including lost profits, that you may suffer as a result of their breach. Depending on the distribution of bargaining power between you and the other contracting party, you may not be able to negotiate this issue, but here are 2 things to consider about waivers of consequential damages: (1) If you are faced with a supplier, vendor or independent contractor who wants you to agree to a waiver of consequential damages, you will at least want to try to make sure the waiver is MUTUAL (i.e. applies equally to both parties). (2) Although we will have to discuss the scope of consequential and other damages at a later date, it is important for you to understand your level of exposure to damages in general, including consequential damages like lost profits, should your suppliers, vendors or independent contractors breach. It could be that whatever you’re buying from them wouldn’t really impact your business in a way that concerns you enough to put up a big fight about including this waiver language. So, know and understand the types of damages you may suffer from a supplier’s breach. (e.g. There is a huge difference between suffering from some losses resulting from additional rental fees should your supplier be late in a delivery of purchased goods vs. losses resulting from a complete shutdown of operations). Please contact an attorney if you’re ever faced with the decision of whether and how to waive or limit consequential damages in your contracts–there are many more considerations and this discussion only skims the...

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Your Liability Can Have Limits

Posted by on Aug 16, 2013 in Draft Your Contract, Limiting Liability

Everyone enters into agreements– not just entrepreneurs and people who own businesses. Therefore, everyone has contractual (and non-contractual) liability of some sort. But when you’re at the point of drafting or signing a contract, it is your chance to double-check exactly what you’re getting into and ask yourself what kind of exposure or other liability you may be subjecting yourself to after you sign. If you’re like most small businesses or entrepreneurs, you don’t have the time or resources to call an attorney every time you’re executing a contract to provide or buy your goods or services. While we would recommend that you always seek legal advice on the practical and legal effects of the terms of your contracts, there are things you can do on your own to help you limit your contractual liability and we’ll talk about one of those ways today: 1) Limitation of Liability Provision: A limitation of liability provision often includes language that states the maximum amount of damages a party may be liable for under certain circumstances. For example, a limitation of liability provision may state that under no circumstances shall a party’s liability exceed the value of the contract (or the amount of compensation paid under the agreement). While there are many ways to tweak this concept (including addressing different types of damages, like direct and indirect damages), this type of limitation of liability provision is very common and often very heavily negotiated. Liability can be limited to 100% of the contract value, 200% of the contract value or some pre-set amount of money (like $1 million). There are many ways to craft a limitation of liability scenario. So, pay attention when you’re buying something from someone who wants to limit his or her liability to the amount of money you’re paying, especially if you think your damages may exceed what you’ve paid them. If you sign off on this, you may make it harder on yourself later to claim (or completely prevent yourself from claiming altogether) damages in excess of that amount. Likewise, you may want to include limitation of liability language if you’re selling goods or services and you want to be able to limit your exposure to a pre-determined amount that you can predict. While there may be ways to argue around limitation of liability provisions, it can’t hurt to include one if your bargaining position allows you to limit your liability. Again, if you’re dealing with a sophisticated buyer or seller, they are going to zero-in on any limitation of liability provision, so be prepared to negotiate your position. Also– it never hurts to send an attorney a contract and just ask them to at least review the damages and liability provisions and explain the scope to you. At least that way you won’t be...

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