Lost Profits: Direct Or Indirect Damages? (And Why It Matters)

Two species of compensation in breach of contract lawsuits are (1) direct damages and (2) indirect damages.  The former allows a plaintiff to recover money damages that flow directly from a breach while the latter – sometimes labeled “consequential” damages – are more remote and separated from the breach.

Deciphering the difference between the two damage regimes is easy in theory but often difficult in practice.

At the intersection of the two damages types lies the lost profits remedy.  Lost profits damages allow the non-breaching party to recover profits he would have earned had the breaching party performed under the terms of the contract.  They (lost profits) divide into direct or indirect damages depending on the facts.

Westlake Financial Group, Inc. v. CDH-Delnor Health System, 2015 IL App(2d) 140589 spotlights the lost profits question in a dispute between two businesses over an insurance brokerage contract (the “Insurance Contract”) and a separate on-line claims tracking agreement (“the Tracking Contract”).

Both contracts spanned four years with 60-day termination clauses.  The plaintiff sued when the defendant prematurely cancelled both Contracts with more than two years left on them.  Plaintiff sought damages for lost Insurance Contract insurance commissions and for fees it would have earned under the Tracking Contract.

The trial court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss and the plaintiff appealed.

Result: Reversed in part.

The trial court dismissed the bulk of plaintiff’s claims based on a limitation of damages clause in the Insurance Contract that immunized the defendant from consequential damages.

In Illinois, contract damages are measured by the amount of money needed to place the plaintiff in  the same position he would be if the contract was performed.  Damage limitation provisions in contracts are enforced so long as they don’t offend public policy.  These limitation clauses are strictly construed against the party benefitting from them.  (¶¶ 29-30).

Direct damages or “general damages” flow directly and without interruption from the type of wrong alleged in a complaint.  By contrast, indirect or consequential damages are losses that are removed from the breach and usually involve an intervening event that causes the damage.

Lost profits can constitute either direct damages or indirect damages depending on the facts.  Where a plaintiff’s lost profits damages result directly from a defendant’s breach, the lost profits are recoverable as direct damages.

A prototypical direct lost profits damages example cited by the court is where a phone directory publisher is liable for lost profits caused by its failure to include a business’s name in the directory.  In that scenario, any lost profits suffered by the business are directly attributable to the publisher’s failure to publish the business name in the directory – the very thing it was hired to do.  (¶¶ 32-35).

The Insurance Contract here contained a consequential damages exclusion and specifically mentioned lost profits as a type of consequential damages.  Still, the court found that the exclusion did not bar plaintiff’s direct lost profits claim.  The court noted that the Insurance Contract’s damage limitation provision only mentioned lost profits as an example of consequential damages.  It didn’t say that lost profits were categorically excluded.

The court also rejected defendant’s argument that plaintiff’s claimed damages were too speculative to merit recovery.

Under Illinois law, damages are speculative where their existence is uncertain; not when there amount is uncertain.

Since lost profits can’t be proven with mathematical certainty, the plaintiff only has to show a “reasonable basis” for their (lost profits) computation.  (¶ 51).

Since the plaintiff premised its Insurance Contract lost profits claim on a four-year track record of calculable insurance commissions, the court found the plaintiff sufficiently pled the existence of damages.  Any dispute in the amount of plaintiff’s damages was an issue later for trial.  At the motion to dismiss stage, plaintiff sufficiently pled a breach of contract claim.  (¶¶ 52-53).

Afterwords:

– Consequential damages exclusion that mentions lost profits – as a type or example of consequential damages – won’t preclude lost profits that are a direct result (as opposed to an indirect result) of the breach of contract;

– A business plaintiff’s past profits from prior years can serve as sufficient gauge of future lost profits in a breach of contract claim.

 

Published by

PaulP

Litigation attorney at Fisher Kanaris, P.C. representing businesses and individuals in all types of commercial disputes.