Articles Posted in Damages

So your fiancée broke off your engagement because she fell in love with your best friend and decided she likes him better. On top of that, she won’t return the $20,000 engagement ring you bought her. So the marriage is off, your finances are in shambles, and your (former) best friend is at least partially to blame because he asked your former fiancée on a date when he knew she was already engaged. What legal rights do you have?

Engagements are normally a happy and exciting time for the couple, but not all engagements result in marriage. Circumstances change, sparks fade, and life intervenes. Breakups are never easy, but introducing valuable personal property into the mix complicates things further. Only the most vindictive and bitter ex-boyfriends and girlfriends would demand the return of small gifts exchanged during a relationship, but attitudes change significantly when a $20,000 or $50,000 diamond is at stake. Who gets the ring if the engagement is called off? And what liability does the best friend have for seducing your fiancée?

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If you or your business needs to bring a lawsuit, it’s natural to wonder whether you may be entitled to recover millions of dollars. You read about celebrities winning $115 million against magazines who published unauthorized photos, or you hear about women winning millions of dollars against fast-food chains after spilling hot coffee into their laps. Litigation sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? Short of winning the lottery, how else can someone obtain so much money is so short a time with such a small amount of effort? Well, the people you hear about who have won enormous monetary awards in court (at least those that have been upheld on appeal) generally have one thing in common: they suffered an enormous amount of harm as a result of something truly devastating that was done to them, causing them severe pain, extreme emotional distress, or vast economic hardship. In other words, those winning huge jury verdicts tend to be those who have suffered the most pain. You don’t necessarily want to be that person.

The legal term we use when referring to financial awards obtained in court is “damages,” of which there are essentially two types, compensatory and punitive. Compensatory damages are those designed to compensate a plaintiff for the loss or injury actually suffered as a result of the defendant’s conduct. It includes things like damage to property, personal injuries, physical pain, lost economic expectations, and emotional suffering. Compensatory damages are not supposed to give the plaintiff a windfall, make him rich, or punish the defendant. Rather, they are designed simply to make the plaintiff “whole,” to the extent that can be accomplished. They are designed to put the plaintiff roughly in the same position he was in before the wrong was committed.

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Earlier this month I wrote about the case of a dentist who had sued a consultant for breach of fiduciary duty and failed. The court in that case found that the allegations were insufficient to establish the existence of an agency relationship, and without such a relationship, the consultant owed no fiduciary duty to the dentist. In a similar case between a medical doctor and a consultant, Bocek v. JGA Associates, the trial court reached the same conclusion, but was reversed on appeal, the Fourth Circuit holding that the doctor had proved as a matter of law that the defendants were agents of the doctor and had breached fiduciary obligations by misappropriating a business opportunity for themselves. When the case went back to the trial court, the only issue was to determine the appropriate remedies for the consultants’ breach of fiduciary duty. The latest opinion offers a helpful guide as to the potential remedies available in breach-of-fiduciary-duty cases. What follows is a brief summary of the various forms of relief discussed in the opinion.

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Liquidated damages are damages the amount of which has been agreed upon in advance by the contracting parties. When a contract contains a liquidated-damages provision, the amount of damages in the event of a breach is either specified, or a precise method for determining the sum of damages is laid out. This is often done in situations where the parties agree that the harm likely to be caused by a breach would be difficult or impossible to measure with any precision, so they agree on a figure in advance and dispense with the time and effort that would otherwise be involved in proving compensatory damages at trial. Another benefit often cited is the ability to control exposure to risk that normally is inherent in business litigation.

Fairfax Circuit Court judge Charles J. Maxfield was recently presented with the interesting question of whether to enforce an optional liquidated damages clause, an issue not yet decided by the Virginia Supreme Court. Sagatov Builders LLC v. Hunt involved a sale of real estate. The seller alleged the buyer was supposed to pay a $50,000 deposit but didn’t. The parties’ contract contained the following provision:

If the Purchaser is in default, the Seller shall have all legal and equitable remedies, retaining the Deposit until such time as those damages are ascertained, or the Seller may elect to terminate the contract and declare the Deposit forfeited as liquidated damages and not as a penalty …. If the Seller does not elect to accept the Deposit as liquidated damages, the Deposit may not be the limit of the Purchaser’s liability in the event of a default.

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A plaintiff filing a lawsuit usually wants to demand as much money as possible, both for the intimidation value and because in Virginia state court, you cannot recover damages in an amount greater than what you asked for in the complaint, even if the jury awards it. Plaintiffs are thus often tempted to include demands for punitive damages, which can add as much as $350,000 to a recovery. (Punitives are capped at $350,000 in Virginia). Punitive damages, however, are not available in contract disputes. This creates a situation where the plaintiff’s attorney often tries to craft the complaint in such a way as to make it appear that the defendant not only breached a contract but committed one or more related torts as well, such as fraud, tortious interference with contract, or business conspiracy. Enter the “economic loss rule.”

Designed to maintain the distinctions between contract claims and tort claims, the economic loss rule provides that where the plaintiff is a party to a contract and has suffered only disappointed economic expectations, such as damages for inadequate value, the cost to repair a defective product, or lost profits (as opposed to damage to persons or property), his remedy sounds in contract and not tort. In other words, if the plaintiff did not receive the benefit that he bargained for, his losses will be deemed merely economic and he will not be permitted to recover on a tort theory. An exception would apply if the contract itself was fraudulently induced.
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Virginia’s statute of frauds provides that “[u]nless a …contract…is in writing and signed by the party to be charged or his agent, no action shall be brought…[u]pon any agreement that is not to be performed within a year.” Va. Code Ann. § 11-2(8). A party wishing to assert the statute of frauds as an affirmative defense to a breach of contract action must show that the parties’ oral agreement was within the statute of frauds. The issue is whether the contract as a whole can be fully performed on one side within a year, even through the occurrence of some improbable event. If a court can conjure up some contingency, no matter how unlikely, that would allow either party to completely perform all of its contractual obligations within one year, the statute of frauds will not apply. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia recently examined this issue in Blue Sky Travel v. Al Tayyar.

Blue Sky purchased airline tickets that Al Tayyar Group (“ATG”) then resold to the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Higher Education (the “Ministry”). The parties orally agreed to share the profits that ATG realized from the re-sales. When Blue Sky sued ATG for breach of contract, ATG asserted the statute of frauds as an affirmative defense arguing that since Blue Sky’s share of the profits could not be calculated until after the end of the calendar year, an oral contract for profit sharing could not have been performed within a year and therefore fell within the statute of frauds.

The court found that the parties’ agreement was premised on ATG receiving orders for tickets from the Ministry and that without an order, Blue Sky would not purchase tickets and the parties would not share any profits. The contract did not obligate the Ministry to order tickets, so it was possible that the Ministry could have decided not to order any tickets in a year or stopped split money.jpgordering tickets at any time such that neither Blue Sky nor ATG would be required to perform. Also, the Ministry contract could have been terminated within a year of the parties’ agreement. Therefore, either or both parties could have completed their performance under the oral agreement within a year without breaching or terminating the agreement. The court held that ATG failed to carry its burden of establishing that the parties’ oral agreement could not have been fully performed by either party within a year, and that the oral contract was therefore outside the statute of frauds.

A plaintiff must prove his damages claim with reasonable certainty by providing sufficient facts and circumstances to allow the fact finder to make an intelligent and probable estimate of the damages sustained. In Crum v. Anonymizer, the Fairfax Circuit Court refused to modify a jury verdict awarding the plaintiff less than he contended he was owed when the court found he failed to present sufficient evidence of his damages.

In Crum, the jury found that Anonymizer, Inc. had breached its Sales Incentive Plan when it capped Daniel Crum’s total commissions and cut his commission percentage from 6% to 3%. The jury awarded Crum $139,458.17 in damages, but it determined that Crum had not proven his breach of contract claim with regard to post-termination commissions.

Crum made a Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict, asserting that the Sales Incentive Plan contained the only conditions he had to satisfy to earn commissions and that no evidence had been presented that he had failed to satisfy those conditions. Crum contended that the only evidence shown was that Anonymizer stopped payments once it no longer employed Crum. Anonymizer produced evidence that corporate practice was to stop paying sales commissions after termination, but crumbs.jpgthere was no evidence that continued employment was a condition of the Sales Incentive Plan. Accordingly, Crum argued that the jury had no basis to conclude that continued employment was a condition and should have awarded him damages on his post-termination claim.

The allegations in Autopartsource, LLC v. Bruton presented a fairly egregious case of stolen trade secrets. Due to a defendant’s failure to answer, those allegations were deemed true. As remedies, Autopartsource sought $1,131,801.55 in compensatory damages, $350,000 in punitive damages (the statutory maximum), $59,409.72 in attorneys’ fees and costs, a worldwide production injunction to last seven years, and a permanent injunction prohibiting the use of Autopartsource’s trade secrets. The court held an evidentiary hearing and ruled that while Autopartsource was entitled to an injunction and substantial damages, the scope of the requested injunction would be narrowed and the damages would be reduced.

Autopartsource designated employee Stephen Bruton to spearhead the company’s effort to develop business in China, where it sources its automobile parts. Bruton secretly developed his own competing business, BBH Source Group, and misappropriated Autopartsource’s trade secrets in doing so, using them to redirect prospective Autopartsource customers to BBH. After Autopartsource discovered Bruton’s actions and fired him, Bruton broke into an Autopartsource facility and deleted proprietary information from its database.

Autopartsource sued for violation of the Virginia Uniform Trade Secrets Act, tortious interference with business expectancy, and tortious interference with contract. The court found that Autopartsource had established liability on all three theories but that, under Virginia law, it could not recover damages under both VUTSA and its claim for tortious interference with business expectancy, as a party cannot receive damages for a common law tort if the underlying conduct involves an intentional misappropriation of a trade secret.

Federal laws protect whistleblowers from retaliation because the government wants people to report fraud in government contracts. When Weihua Huang, a principal investigator on a National Institutes of Health (NIH) research grant at the University of Virginia, discovered unauthorized changes that diverted grant money to unrelated salaries and expenses, he reported it to the head of UVa’s Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences. Soon thereafter, he was told his employment contract wouldn’t be renewed. Huang sued for False Claims Act retaliation and won a jury verdict of $159,915 in lost wages plus $500,000 in compensatory emotional-distress damages. Not surprisingly, the defendants (Huang’s supervisor Dr. Ming D. Li, and Department Chair Dr. Bankole A. Johnson) asked the court to reduce the damages award as excessive.

Specifically, the defendants invoked a process known as remittitur, asking Judge Norman K. Moon to either reduce the emotional distress damages to $10,000, or order a new trial. They pointed out that the only evidence of emotional distress was Huang’s own unsupported testimony. There was no evidence, for example, of medical treatment or other corroborating evidence. They argued that where the injury consists of emotional distress, the Fourth Circuit usually finds six-figure damages awards excessive when not supported by medical evidence.

A jury’s compensatory damages award will be considered excessive if it is “against the clear weight of the evidence or based on evidence which is false.” Under Rule 59(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, if a plaintiff won’t accept a trial court’s reduction of an excessive jury award, the court can order a new trial.

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