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惩罚性条款和违约赔偿金
文/Gerrit De Geest

PENALTY CLAUSES AND LIQUIDATED DAMAGES 

Abstract

This chapter surveys the economic literature on stipulated damages. In the

literature there seems to be a consensus that liquidated and underliquidated

damages should be respected. Liquidated damages can be a rational option,

especially if parties have more information about the possible losses than

judges. Underliquidated damages may can serve as a technique to let parties

share the risk of increased production costs.

Penalty clauses, on the other hand, have been the subject of a fierce

controversy for a long time. Most authors seem to defend the prohibition of

penalty clauses. Yet it can be argued that they should be allowed under some

conditions.

JEL classification: K12

Keywords: Stipulated Damages, Underliquidated Damages, Remedies,

Breach of Contract

 

1. Introduction

 

Sometimes parties to a contract ex ante agree upon how much compensation

will have to be paid should one of them breach the contract. These stipulated

damages are called ‘liquidated damages’ when they are ex ante reasonable

estimations of the true losses. They are called <underliquidated damages’

when they are meant to be undercompensatory and ‘penalty clauses’ when

they are deliberately overcompensatory in order to create an additional

sanction (‘penalty’). In common law penalty clauses are forbidden according

to the ‘penalty doctrine’. Liquidated and underliquidated damages on the

other hand are allowed.

 

This regulation of penalty clauses has received so much attention in the

law and economics literature that it deserves a separate section. The first

analyses did indeed not make clear why common law restricts the freedom of

contracting parties in this way. In 1979 Posner (1979, p. 290) described the

penalty doctrine as ‘a major unexplained puzzle in the economic theory of

law’. The penalty doctrine seemed to form an important exception to

Posner’s general thesis that common law is efficient.

 

Before starting to review the literature it might be helpful to pay

attention to the precise definition of the borderlines between penalty clauses

and liquidated damages.

 

Rea (1984a) has argued that much of the confusion around the penalty

doctrine occurs because of the failure to distinguish ex ante and ex post

valuation of losses. It is not because stipulated damages ex post turn out to

be overcompensatory that they will be considered penalty clauses by

American courts. American courts only check whether the clauses are

reasonable ex ante. When clauses are ex ante reasonable estimations of the

true losses, or to put it differently, when clauses reflect the expected losses,

they will be enforced.

 

In addition, liquidated damages are meant to compensate fully for losses,

including subjective and other hard to prove losses. It is possible that courts

mistakenly consider liquidated damages to be penalty clauses because they

underestimate subjective costs. Yet, from an analytical point of view these

clauses should be seen as liquidated damages. An early article of Goetz and

Scott (1977) can serve as an illustration of this confusion. Goetz and Scott

argued that a penalty clause is often just a way for a contracting party to

insure itself against idiosyncratic harm or otherwise uncompensated

damages. They give the example of a group of alumni who attach an

enormous subjective value to attending a baseball game of their college

team. Therefore, they stipulate in the contract with the bus driver that the

latter wil have to pay a high amount of damages in case he arrives late. This

amount is high but just reflects their true subjective losses. Moreover, the

promisor will very often be a better insurer than a traditional third party

insurer. This argument, however, is in fact just a plea for respecting

liquidated damage clauses and not necessarily an argument for

supracompensatory penalty clauses.

 

2. Liquidated Damages, Penalty Clauses and Underliquidated Damages

as Compared to Other Remedies

 

Many arguments for or against penalty clauses hold for other, less contested

remedies as well. Therefore, it is important to situate these sanctions within

the complete set of contract remedies, including the reliance measure, the

expectation measure and specific performance.

 

At first sight, liquidated damages seem to be equivalent to the

expectation measure. Liquidated damages are meant to fully compensate the

promisee and ‘fully’ includes the expected profits (only in cases were the

expected profits are compensated, the promisee is really indifferent with

regard to performance or breach). The major difference seems to lie in the

fact that liquidated damages are calculated ex ante (at the time of

contracting) while the expectation damages are calculated or made

operational ex post (after breaching). One major disadvantage of expectation

damages that is that they discourage efficient entering into contracts (see

Chapter 4600), which holds for liquidated damages as well. To put it

differently, if sellers demand liquidated damages in case of breach, fewer

buyers than optimal will sign the contract.

 

With respect to breaching decisions, however, there is a difference. The

expectation measure leads to efficient breaching (Birmingham, 1970;

Shavell, 1980). Liquidated damages, however, are determined ex ante, so at

the time the promisor decides whether to breach or to perform, he may

already know that the stipulated damages are over- or undercompensatory. If

they are overcompensatory, the promisor might overperform; if they are

undercompensatory, the promisor might overbreach. This difference may be

smaller than it seems. Judges do not compensate perfectly under the

expectation measure either. If the promisor expects the judge to

overcompensate he will overperform. If the promisor expects the judge to

undercompensate he will overbreach.

 

To summarize, liquidated damages may create incentives to

overperforming as well as to overbreaching. Whether incentives are worse

than under the expectation measure depends on how well judges valuate the

losses. If judges systematically and seriously undercompensate, then

liquidated damages may be the superior remedy when it comes to incentives

to breaching.

 

Penalty clauses and specific performance have in common that both are

supracompensatory sanctions. One consequence is that both lead to

overperformance, or to put it differently, that both discourage efficient

breaches. Penalty clauses, however, award an amount of money to the

promisee, while specific performance makes the promisor perform in natura.

At first sight this leads to an important difference: only penalty clauses

create an incentive for the promisee to induce breach. But much depends on

how specific performance works in practice. Under American law, nonperforming

promisors have to pay a fine on the basis of ‘contempt of court’.

This fine is paid to the court so it does not alter the incentives of the

promisee But in France, Belgium and the Netherlands, specific performance

is obtained by ‘astreintes’, high amounts of money (usually for each day of

non-performance), determined by a judge but to be paid to the promisee.

Astreintes create incentives to induce the other party’s breach as well.

 

An important difference between penalty clauses and specific

performance lies in the temporal dimension (De Geest, 1994); for a more

general discussion of the temporal dimensions of liability rules and property

rules see Levmore, 1997).

 

Specific performance needs some time before it becomes operational. It

works only for the future and not for the past. If by the time the promisee

goes to court performance in natura is no longer possible (or no longer

desirable), then courts will award just damages. Suppose someone had

promised to deliver a wedding cake at the promisee’s wedding, but did not

show up. Specific performance makes no sense afterwards, so awarding

damages is all the courts can do. On the other hand, penalty clauses can be

awarded for breaches in the past. This means that a specific performance

regime might in the real world be compensatory and that parties wanting

extracompensatory sanctions may have no choice but to include penalty

clauses in their contracts.

 

Finally, underliquidated damages can be the equivalent of anything inbetween

a perfectly applied expectation measure and no damages at all.

They may be the equivalent of reliance damages but also of an

undercompensatory expectation measure. Just as in the case of the reliance

measure they lead to overbreaching. The problem of undercontracting will

be smaller than under the expectation measure or even nonexistent, if they

are set just to compensate reliance damages.

 

A. Liquidated Damages

 

3. Liquidated Damages Avoid Ex Post Valuation Difficulties

 

With liquidated damages losses are estimated ex ante, at the time of

contracting. Such clauses avoid that judges have to compute the damages ex

post. It is well known that judges may have serious difficulties in finding out

the true losses. This holds especially for subjective harm. It is impossible for

a judge to know the promisee’s preferences precisely. Nor can he rely on

what the promisee tells him, because the latter has no incentive to reveal his

preferences in an honest way. This kind of preference revelation problem

does not arise when the loss is determined ex ante. At that time the parties

are still free to enter the contract or not. The higher the amount stipulated,

the higher the price: the debtor will require compensation for his additional

prevention costs and for the additional risk he has to insure. An ex ante

estimation is also useful for other forms of damage which are difficult to

prove. The costs of forgone chances are one example. Lacking clear

evidence, courts will underestimate such losses.

 

In this respect, liquidated damages reduce the risk of legal error. The

probability that a judge will err in estimating the damage is largely

eliminated. Of course the danger that a judge will erroneously consider the

clause to be a forbidden penalty clause still exists. The risk that a judge

wrongly applies the liquidated damage clause even though the debtor did not

breach the contract, also remains.

 

A somewhat related advantage of liquidated damage clauses is that they

allow us to avoid adverse selection problems. These problems arise when the

seller does not know how high the losses of the buyer will be in case of

breach. Because of this lack of information, the seller will assume ex ante

that the potential promisee represents an average risk. The doctrine of

foreseeability (Hadley v. Baxendale) serves to mitigate the adverse selection

problems. It forces people whose damage may be higher than usual to

communicate this to the seller. A liquidated damage clause can perform this

function as well. However one crucial condition is that the liquidated

damage clause is tailor-made. If liquidated damages do not take into account

the individual characteristics of the buyer, but consist of standard term

clauses, they no longer have this function.

 

4. Liquidated Damages Create Incentives for Optimal Reliance and

Optimal Precaution

 

Cooter (1985) proved that damage clauses create a ‘double responsibility at

the margin’. First, the promisor receives an incentive to make an optimal

amount of precaution costs. Second, the promisee gets a perfect incentive not

to make too many reliance costs, because he will receive a fixed

compensation in case of a breach of contract, regardless of the amount of

reliance costs he has effectively incurred. This is not the case with normal

expectation or reliance damages awarded by a judge, because judges

generally do not examine whether the reliance costs made by the promisee

were excessive or not. To be sure, the same result could be reached with

damages that are judicially determined by compensating only for the

efficient reliance costs. In practice, however, insuperable difficulties of proof

often arise, which hamper the application of this remedy.

 

5. Liquidated Damages Substantially Increase Ex Ante Transaction

Costs

 

To estimate the losses ex ante is nearly always more expensive than ex post.

Ex ante, damages have be to estimated under all circumstances, even if ex

post no loss is incurred. All states of the world have to be taken into account,

while an ex post determination requires only information about the one

situation that has really occurred. Finally, ex post there is usually more

information on what really happened than ex ante. To put if differently, the

ex ante information costs are higher because what will happen is still

remote.

 

6. Ex Post Undercompensatory Liquidated Damages Lead to Ineffecient

Breaches, Ex Post Overcompensatory Liquidated Damages to

Inefficient Performance

 

Liquidated damage clauses aim at correctly compensating the promisee’s

loss. However they are set ex ante, when full information may not be

available yet. If ex post the compensation turns out to be clearly lower than

the real damage, incentive problems arise, as briefly explained in Section 2.

 

If ex post the compensation turns out to exceed the actual loss clearly, the

promisee will have an incentive to head for an inefficient breach of contract.

The promisor will not breach the contract, even if it is efficient to do so. In

case of a breach of contract, the promisee is overinsured; the contract thus

contains a gambling clause. In return for this the creditor has had to pay a

premium.

 

Other aspects may outweigh this disadvantage. A liquidated damage

clause contains information on the possible magnitude of the loss. This

information is useful for the promisor who has to decide whether a breach of

contract is efficient or not. Because this information is produced in advance,

the promisor may make more efficient decisions. The promisor will also be

able to decide more quickly whether the good has to be sold to a third party.

For the same reason, a liquidated damage clause can also lead to a more

optimal level of prevention costs. If the loss or the possible loss is lower than

what the debtor would normally expect, it is also desirable that he makes

fewer prevention costs than usual. The opposite holds when the damage is

higher than usual.

 

B. Penalty Clauses

 

7. The Rationality Argument and the Signing Without Reading Problem

 

One earlier argument against the penalty doctrine was directly derived from

the rationality assumption in economics: we may assume that people are

rational, so if they sign a penalty clause they must have good reasons to do

so. The contract must be efficient, otherwise they would not have signed it.

This argument is implicitly used in the very first economic paper on the

subject (Barton, 1972, p. 286). Barton argued that all liquidated damage

clauses should be enforced without distinction, at least when the provision

was knowledgeably and fairly bargained-for.

 

The rationality argument is more explicit in Kronman and Posner

(1979). Criticizing Clarkson, Miller and Muris (1978) they argue that if

penalty clauses would really create an incentive for the promisee to induce

the promisor to breach, this danger would be reflected in the parties’

negotiations over the contract price or other terms of the contract. If the

penalty clause survives the negotiation process, this is presumably because

the benefits to the promisee exceed the costs to the promisor. According to

Kronman and Posner (1979) there may be room for intervention if one

thinks that the parties cannot assess these costs correctly, but then the basis

for intervention is paternalism. As a limitation on the freedom to contract,

the penalty doctrine is more paternalistic than the contractual incapacity of

minors or the invalidity of contracts of self-enslavement. A somewhat

similar idea can be found in Farber (1983) who argued that in addition to

contract law (the principle of freedom of contract) seems to embody a kind

of safety belt against individual catastrophic losses (including losses

resulting from penalty clauses).

 

Ulen (1984, p. 356) used the rationality assumption to defend penalty

clauses very explicitly ‘there is every reason to believe that they will

stipulate the most efficient remedy, considering all the factors’.

 

This argument, however, is not very convincing. Even though economic

science is based on the assumption of rational behavior, the existence of

information problems is generally accepted. ‘Rational’ does not mean

perfectly informed.

 

It cannot be denied that allowing penalty clauses implies an important

danger: signing without reading (Mackaay, 1982; De Geest, 1994).

Contracting parties do not always read or understand what they are signing.

The party drafting the contract may speculate on this and include certain

clauses which would never have been accepted if they had been read. It must

be clear that this problem is not merely theoretical: penalty clauses may ruin

one’s business and make others rich.

 

The signing without reading problem is elaborated by Mackaay (1982).

Contract terms are in general more costly to verify than most physical

features of commodities. Since most consumers will not inspect the terms,

the market may adapt ‘harsh-term-low-price’ policies. In order to counter

this perversity, some form of government intervention may be desirable.

 

Of course it would be undesirable to solve the signing-without-reading

problem by declaring all signed contracts void.

 

A better strategy is therefore to prove that under certain circumstances

some clauses will never be signed by rational, well-informed parties. The

fact that some people in the real world do sign such clauses can then be

considered as evidence that there was a serious procedural deficiency in the

formation of the contract (for a good example of this strategy see Rea,

1984a).

 

8. The Costs of Legal Error are Higher for Penalty Clauses than for

Liquidated Damages

 

Accepting a penalty clause is always a bit risky, even for those promisors

who perform exactly as promised. There is always a chance that a judge will

erroneously enforce a penalty clause, due to either a mistake or difficulties of

proof. A promisor who behaves optimally but cannot prove, for example,

that there was force majeure, could wrongly be sentenced to pay an

enormous amount. The risk of legal error is very hard to insure.

 

A comparison can be drawn with criminal law. If the judicial system

worked perfectly and if everybody behaved rationally, punishments could be

infinitely harsh. After all, a rational person would never commit a crime and

therefore nobody would be erroneously convicted. But just because the

judicial system works imperfectly, sanctions should not be infinitely harsh.

The same holds for sanctions for breach of contract.

 

9. Penalty Clauses Discourage Efficient Breaching

 

In the second edition of his textbook, Posner (1977, p. 93) suggested that the

law may refuse to enforce penalty clauses because they give an incentive to

complete the contract, even when breaching would be efficient. This

argument is correct, but should be put in context, as argued in Section 2. All

extracompensatory sanctions have this disadvantage. This applies to specific

performance, to liquidated damages that ex post turn out to be

overcompensatory, and to the expectation measure if judges systematically

overcompensate the promisees.

 

10. Penalty Clauses give Promisees an Incentive to Induce Breach of

Contract

 

This was first elaborated by Clarkson, Miller and Muris (1978). Suppose I

sign a contract with a builder. If the builder fails to perform in time, my true

losses are $1,000, but a penalty clause will award me $1,001,000. So I hope

the promisor will breach the contract and I will even do whatever I can to

make the promisor miss the deadline. However in many cases I will not have

any opportunity to mislead or hinder the debtor. Even if I have the

opportunity I must be able to do it covertly, because if the debtor can prove

that I am responsible for the breach, I will get no compensation. Covenants

not to compete, and clauses where the sole relation between the parties is

that of borrower and lender are a few examples given by Clarkson, Miller

and Muris (1978) where inducement of breach is no danger. But where

covertly induced breaching is possible, penalty clauses should be forbidden.

For a similar argument, see X (1978).

 

In a student note (X, 1978) the thesis that preagreed damage clauses

should be reasonable in the light of actual harm is defended too. This test

enables full compensation of the non-breaching party to occur since the

preagreed damage clause will be enforced as long as the breaching party is

unable to show that actual damages are less than the sum of objective and

subjective damages. In addition, the ex post test is consistent with the

discouragement of wagering and breach-inducing activities.

 

Theoretically, the argument is correct. Yet it applies to all other

supracompensatory sanctions as well. As argued in Section 2, there is a

similar problem when specific performance is made operational through the

use of ‘astreintes’. The major question is in how many cases the promisee

has an opportunity to covertly induce breach. It is not so easy to make a

debtor fail when he is aware of the dramatic consequences of his breach.

However a technique (not considered by Clarkson, Miller and Muris, 1978)

that has more chances to succeed is to let a promisor sign a contract that he

did not read.

 

11. Do Penalty Clauses Lead to More Trials?

 

Landes and Posner (1979) mentioned that historically the penalty doctrine

was created at a time when judges were paid from litigation fees. As argued

by Rea (1984a) this argument does not explain why the penalty doctrine

persisted in an era of subsidized courts.

 

Rubin (1981) built on the theory of self-enforcing contracts introduced by

Telser (1980) and argued that penalty clauses are not self-enforcing; they

can be enforced only by court intervention. Every breach of contract by the

debtor will therefore lead to a trial. The costs of these trials are not fully

borne by the parties themselves. Courts are largely subsidized. Because some

costs are externalized, parties will stipulate penalty clauses more often than

is optimal. Rea (1984a) remarked, however, that this argument could be

used in many more cases. There are numerous areas in which courts seem to

encourage the use of judicial resources, even though they are supplied at

little cost. Furthermore, the additional uncertainty associated with the

unenforceability of penalty clauses might increase litigation too.

 

The reasoning of Rubin (1981) is implicitly contradicted by the modern

economic literature on settlement versus trial (see Chapters 7000 and 7400).

In principle rational parties do not go to court. They prefer a settlement

rather than an expensive trial. Why would a rational debtor refuse to pay the

damages stipulated in the contract spontaneously if these clauses are valid in

that legal system? It would cost him a lot more if the promisee went to court.

A trial between two rational parties is only possible if they have different

perceptions of their chances to win. This will happen more often if it is hard

to predict the decision of the judge. With a legal rule allowing all penalty

clauses, the probability of different perceptions will be reduced to nearly

zero. The judge will certainly declare the penalty clause valid. Discussions,

on the other hand, may arise if penalty clauses are forbidden while

liquidated damage clauses are allowed, or when such clauses are forbidden if

they exceed the highest damage possible. In those cases the judge has to

draw a line and where that line lies is not always clear. Whether this is a

valid argument against regulations prohibiting (certain) penalty clauses, is

doubtful, however. The problem of the excessive subsidization of courts can

be solved more easily by increasing the trial costs.

 

12. Penalty Clauses as a Barrier to Entry?

 

In the literature it has been argued that penalty clauses entail another serious

potential danger: their use as a barrier to entry.

Diamond and Maskin (1979) are the first to clearly demonstrate the

external effects of damages. In their model, individuals search for partners

and negotiate contracts to produce output. The individuals may decide to

breach their contract and form a new partnership. Since the surplus of this

new partnership depends on the damages that a breaching party has to pay to

its old partner, they also affect its new partner. By stipulating liquidated

damages parties to a contract can therefore exert some monopoly power over

potential partners.

 

By illustrating how liquidated damage clauses can reduce competition

Aghion and Bolton (1987) again stress the external effects of such clauses.

In their model an incumbent seller and a buyer can sign a contract

specifying a price and liquidated damages in case the buyer breaches the

contract. In line with Diamond and Maskin (1979) it is shown that this

contract gives the parties some joint monopoly power over a potential

competitor. The buyer will not breach the contract and trade with a new

entrant unless the latter compensates him for the liquidated damages that he

owes to the incumbent seller. The liquidated damages thus act as an entry

fee which enables the contracting parties to appropriate part of the surplus of

a more efficient producer who enters the market. Because of this entry fee a

welfare-enhancing entry is blocked and the contract introduces a social cost.

 

Chung (1992) analyzes the effects of the penalty doctrine in a framework

similar to that of Aghion and Bolton (1987). But in his model the buyer also

has to make a reliance decision and the third party is a new buyer with a

higher valuation for the good. He shows again that by stipulating in the

initial contract a high level of liquidated damages, the parties to a contract

could raise the price that a third party has to pay to induce a breach of

contract. However, when the reliance investment of the buyer is fixed, the

penalty doctrine, by putting an upper limit on the enforceable stipulated

damages, eliminates this inefficiency and allows the implementation of the

first-best outcome. This no longer holds when the reliance investment of the

buyer is variable. Then the promisee will overrely on it, even with the

penalty doctrine in place.

 

In the literature, the Aghion and Bolton model is often used as an

argument against penalty clauses. However, this barrier-to-entry-argument

applies to the expectation measure and to liquidated damages as well.

 

Consider a contract for the duration of 10 years that binds all consumers

in a market to a monopolistic seller. The production costs of the current

monopolist are 50 and the price is 100. The sanction for breach is the

expectation measure (the standard remedy under both Anglo-American and

continental law), which means that a breaching buyer has to pay 50. A new

entrant with a production cost of 50 offers the same product at a price of 51.

None of the buyers will breach. If the product is sold at production costs,

that is 50, consumers are indifferent. But if we assume that changing

partners always involves positive transaction costs (a very plausible

assumption), the new entrant will still not attract any of the existing

consumers. So the expectation measure, which is the normal sanction for

breach in Anglo-American law, as well as in continental law, can serve as a

barrier to entry as well.

 

Aghion and Bolton (1987) merely view their paper as an illustration of

the much broader problem of the endogenous creation of switching costs.

Other examples include advance deposits in rental contracts, frequent flyer

programs, trading stamps, deferred rebates by shipping firms, fixed fees in

franchise contracts and so on. Even if the penalty doctrine is needed to

counter the use of damage clauses as a barrier to entry, it will not necessarily

capture other contract clauses which may have the same effect. Given the

variety and complexity of potential contract clauses, antitrust authorities face

an almost impossible task here.

 

13. Can Penalty Clauses Have a Signalling Function?

 

The idea that penalty clauses can be useful as a signal for a promisor’s

reliability was first articulated by Posner (1977, p. 93). According to Posner,

this signalling function is important especially for new entrants in the

market who have not yet built up a reputation. An effective way for a

promisor to convince other parties that he will perform as promised is to

offer a penalty clause against himself. The fact that the promisor is willing

to offer such a heavy sanction on his non-performance signals that he is

convinced that he is willing and able to perform. Thus a penalty clause has a

communicative function: it is a signal of reliability sent by the debtor.

Although this idea has been seriously criticized in the literature, Posner

retains this argument in the third and the fourth editions of his handbook

(Posner, 1986, 1992).

 

Apparently, this argument was countered in a convincing way by Muris

(1981) and Rea (1984a). According to those authors a liquidated damage

clause can perform this function equally well. A liquidated damage clause

fully compensates the promisee, making him indifferent as to whether the

promisor will breach or perform. So if a new entrant promises to fully

compensate the losses in case of non-performance, potential parties are

satisfied too. But compared to penalty clauses, liquidated damages entail

fewer incentive problems. This may be reflected in a lower price of the

product or service. A similar argument was developed by Schwartz (1990).

 

De Geest (1994), however, has argued that under some conditions, the

signalling theory becomes defendable. It is cheaper to draft a penalty clause

than a liquidated damage clause. In the case of a liquidated damage clause

one has to form an idea of all possible damage cases that might occur and to

compute an average of them. For a penalty clause it suffices to estimate the

highest possible damage.

 

A penalty clause may therefore be desirable when a precise liquidated

damage clause is too costly and the courts systematically award a

compensation which is too small or which is exact on average but uncertain.

 

A debtor may, for instance, want to use a standard form contract with a

penalty clause to his own detriment. It may be too costly to draft a liquidated

damages clause for every person individually. Therefore a standard form

contract is used with a penalty clause compensating for the highest loss

possible. For most creditors the compensation exceeds the real damage and

even the ex ante estimation of it. Therefore, one clearly has to do with a

penalty clause.

 

If the loss of the average creditor is taken as a starting point, an adverse

selection problem would therefore arise in such cases. The creditors with the

highest real damage would not contract. On the other hand no high

premium has to be demanded in return for the penalty clause when the only

risk consists of non-performance by the debtor. For a bona fide debtor this

risk is almost equal to zero, leaving aside the legal error costs.

 

However, this signalling argument can never justify a penalty clause that

applies to force majeure cases (De Geest, 1994). Such a penalty clause that

applies in case of force majeure is an instance of overinsurance, a gambling

clause. The suggestion of Posner (1973) that courts are taking a stand

against gambling contracts makes sense in that respect.

 

14. Penalty Clauses as Punitive Sanctions when the Apprehension Rate

is Lower than 1

 

In the economic literature on tort law it is generally accepted that punitive

damages may be economically desirable when the injurer has a significant

chance of escaping liability for the harm he caused (Polinsky and Shavell,

1998).

 

While apprehension rates are generally higher in contract than in tort

cases, there may be contract cases where it is difficult to discover or prove

the debtor’s breach. It has been argued that punitive damages should be

awarded in those cases (Perlstein, 1992; Polinsky and Shavell, 1998, pp.

936-939). See also Farber (1980) and Schwartz (1990) for a discussion of

the economic function of punitive damages in breach of contract disputes.

 

Penalty clauses may remedy this problem as well. Their extracompensatory

nature compensates apprehension rates lower than 1. Which

of both remedies is the best - punitive damages or penalty clauses - is still a

relatively unexplored issue. Punitive damages have one comparative

advantage: the apprehension rate can be calculated more realistically,

because it is determined ex post, when more information about what

happened is available. But this ex ante lack-of-information argument is a

more general one that can be used against liquidated damages as well (ex

ante it is more difficult to predict the magnitude of the harm than ex post). It

may therefore be insufficient in itself to justify the penalty doctrine.

 

15. Penalty Clauses as a Technique to Obtain Backward-Looking

Specific Performance

 

In Section 2 we have already discussed an important difference between

penalty clauses and the specific performance remedy. Specific performance

only works for the future and not for the past. If performance in natura is no

longer desirable, courts will award just damages. On the other hand, penalty

clauses can be awarded for breaches in the past. This means that the

traditional specific performance remedy may sometimes not be enough of a

disadvantage to make the promisor perform specifically. Penalty clauses may

therefore be the only technique to really guarantee specific performance.

 

16. Penalty Clauses as a Technique to Create Risk Sharing

 

Polinsky (1983) demonstrated that stipulated damages, which differ from

expectation damages, can be necessary to obtain an optimal risk allocation.

Under some conditions, penalty clauses can be a technique to let parties

share the risk of a higher third party bid.

 

Consider a contract to sell a Van Gogh painting. The price is 100 but the

buyer’s true valuation is 150. There is a chance that before the date of

delivery a third party will arrive offering 200. Suppose that the parties want

to share that risk equally. This result can be obtained by stipulating in the

contract that the seller should pay damages amounting to 75 in case of a

breach. Should there be a third party offer, then the seller will indeed breach

and make an additional profit of 25 (a price increase of 100 minus 75

damages). The buyer will be 25 better off as well. Yet the damages of 75 are

overcompensatory (at least if the buyer had no sufficient knowledge of the

market to have found the third party himself).

 

A penalty clause exceeding 100 (in the latter example) allocates the risk

entirely to the buyer. At first sight, penalty clauses are not necessary here,

however, since the specific performance remedy obtains the same result. Yet,

rational parties may prefer penalty clauses in those cases for the reasons

discussed in the former section (specific performance cannot always restore

breaches in the past). Of course, penalty clauses can be a good second-best

solution when specific performance could clear the job as well but is not

available in the legal system.

 

17. Do Penalty Clauses Increase the Number of Bankruptcies? Penalty

Clauses to Sanction Debtors Financing their Commercial Activities

via Delayed Payments

 

According to Farber (1983) penalty clauses lead to more bankruptcies. A

debtor will have to pay a much higher amount in case he breaches and will

therefore more easily get into financial distress. If the bankrupted party is

involved in a web of long-term business relations with others, these too will

be disrupted. If the other contracting parties fail to include penalty clauses in

their own contracts, they will be disadvantaged when it comes to receiving a

share of the assets in bankruptcy. If the use of penalty clauses were

widespread, a wave of business failures triggered in a recession by penalty

clauses could have a severe effect on investor confidence.

 

But Farber (1983) does not take into account another cause of insolvency,

as argued by De Geest (1994). Entrepreneurs who are working with other

people’s capital sometimes take on excessive commercial risks. This danger

is particularly serious when they finance their activities with fixed interest

loans. Then the downward risk of the entrepreneurs is externalized while the

upward risk is internalized. This is why shareholdership is a more common

way of raising money. Yet there is a subtle way to coerce non-assenting

people to lend money at a fixed interest rate: let them work for you or deliver

goods and simply delay paying them. The creditor can then go to court, but

it may take a long time before he is able to enforce his rights. This problem

is most pressing in case of corporations that are about to go bankrupt.

 

A penalty clause will not really prevent the entrepreneurs from taking on

commercial risks. They can always turn to any owner of capital they may

find. The latter will only lend out his money if he believes that he will

benefit from it. In case of intrinsically loss-making projects this is almost

impossible. A penalty clause in relation to an obligation to pay a sum of

money just makes it more costly to force creditors to lend capital against

their will. Penalty clauses will direct capital seeking entrepreneurs from

non-specialized borrowers (painters, sellers, builders, ...) to specialized

borrowers (bank, shareholders, ...). The result is economically desirable and

may lead to a lower number of bankruptcies, or at least to lower drains in

case of bankruptcy.

 

By the same token, a penalty clause may be efficient in the case of loans.

A penalty clause that corresponds to the highest possible risk premium

possible will create proper incentives for a debtor to borrow additional

money from parties that explicitly give their consent.

 

C. Underliquidated Damages

 

18. Unliquidated Damages as a Technique to Create Risk Sharing

 

Probably, the most important function of underliquidated damages is to

make risk sharing possible for production cost uncertainties.

In case of underliquidated damages against a producer, the risk of

increased production costs is shared between the debtor and the creditor. The

debtor only bears this risk to the extent of his own profit and a fraction of the

consumer surplus of the creditor. The creditor bears the risk to the extent of

the remaining part of his consumer surplus.

 

Underliquidated damages against a consumer are possible as well. They

imply that a consumer who cancels a reservation or an order, does not have

to compensate the total profit of the producer or the seller. The risk of

decreased utility is shared between the creditor and the debtor. The creditor

bears this risk to the extent of his own consumer surplus and only a fraction

of the profit of the debtor. The debtor bears the risk to the extent of the

remaining part of his profit. Underliquidated damages thus allow agreement

on, for instance, the reliance measure, the default rule prescribing the

expectation measure.

 

19. Other Advantages and Disadvantages of Underliquidated Damages

 

Underliquidated damages create a number of inefficient incentives. The

creditor gets an incentive to avoid by all means an efficient breach of

contract, because his compensation given a breach of contract is lower than

his consumer surplus with specific performance. The debtor gets an

incentive to head for an inefficient breach of contract in case of increased

performance costs of the seller or decreased utility for the buyer.

Underliquidated damages for the risk of a higher third party offer boil down

to a gambling clause. With respect to the allocation of that risk, this is

always undesirable unless the creditor is risk seeking.

 

But underliquidated damages resemble the reliance measure. Also, with

the latter, the compensation is lower than the real (expectation) damage.

Compared with expectation damages, reliance damages have one big

advantage: they lead to an optimal level of contracting.

Because rational parties may have good reasons to stipulate

underliquidated damages, it is not desirable to readjust this clause. That

would be a type of regulation which does not necessarily improve the

situation.

 

As shown by Stole (1992) underliquidated damages may also play a role

as screening device. Standardized underliquidated damages can give highvalue

buyers an incentive to reveal their true valuations. We could compare

this with the foreseeabilility doctrine in ordinary contract law: if parties do

no use stipulated damages, courts will undercompensate the promisor if his

losses were unforeseeable to the promisee (Hadley v. Baxendale in the

common law). The economic function of that rule is to make promisees

reveal in advance that they are more vulnerable.

 

D. Conclusions

 

20. Liquidated and Underliquidated Damages should be Allowed

 

In the literature there seems to be a consensus that liquidated and

underliquidated damages should be respected. This means that judges

should not test liquidated damages against the real ex post damage. If judges

always corrected liquidated damages that turn out to differ from the real

losses, this would mean that the ex post valuation of the judge is the only

thing that ultimately counts (except for those cases where judges are

uncertain as to what are the true losses and put the burden of proof with the

party that argues that the true losses differ from what is stipulated ex ante).

Liquidated damages can be a rational option, especially if parties have

more information about the possible losses than judges. Underliquidated

damages may among other things be useful to let parties share the risk of

increased production costs.

 

21. Under what Conditions should Penalty Clauses be Allowed?

 

Penalty clauses, on the other hand, have been the subject of a fierce

controversy for a long time. Most of authors seems to defend the penalty

doctrine - the common law doctrine that forbids penalty clauses. It cannot be

denied that penalty clauses have many disadvantages. Yet they may have a

number of functions as well.

Though penalty clauses should be forbidden in most cases, we

nevertheless believe that they should be allowed under a few well-defined

conditions.

 

(a) A penalty clause against the drafter of a standard term contract

should be allowed when it reflects the highest possible losses. Consumers

may indeed have varying losses in case of breach. Drafting a tailor-made

liquidated damages clause for each consumer individually may simply be too

costly. The signing-without-reading problem is extremely unlikely to occur

if the penalty clause is conceived against the drafter of the contract.

 

(b) A penalty clause for the obligation to pay an amount of money in

time should be allowed. Here it is quite rational to set the interest rate so that

it reflects the highest possible commercial risk. An interest rate of 200

percent a year may discourage bad-faith promisors to finance risky,

commercial projects by retarding payment to non-consenting promisees. Of

course there is still a signing-without-reading danger here. But this may be

limited if the interest rate is not set at a nearly infinite level but at one that

just reflects a very high commercial risk.

 

Yet in case of force majeure, these penalty clauses should not be

enforceable even if conditions (a) and (b) are fulfilled. It is impossible for a

penalty clause to have a signalling function here. This would be an instance

of overinsurance, a gambling clause.

 


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