In a case that invokes Hadley v. Baxendale** – the storied British Court of Exchequer case published just three years after Moby-Dick (“Call me ‘Wikipedia’ guy?”) and is a stalwart of all first year Contracts courses across the land – the Seventh Circuit reversed a multi-million dollar judgment for a furniture maker.
The plaintiff in JMB Manufacturing, Inc. v. Child Craft, LLC, sued the defendant furniture manufacturer for failing to pay for about $90,000 worth of wood products it ordered. The furniture maker in turn countersued for breach of contract and negligent misrepresentation versus the wood supplier and its President alleging that the defective wood products caused the furniture maker to go out of business – resulting in millions of dollars in damages.
The trial court entered a $2.7M money judgment for the furniture maker on its counterclaims after a bench trial.
The Seventh Circuit reversed the judgment for the counter-plaintiff based on Indiana’s economic loss rule.
Indiana follows the economic loss doctrine which posits that “there is no liability in tort for pure economic loss caused unintentionally.” Pure economic loss means monetary loss that is not accompanied with any property damage (to other property) or personal injury. The rule is based on the principal that contract law is better suited than tort law to handle economic loss lawsuits. The economic loss rule prevents a commercial party from recovering losses under a tort theory where the party could have protected itself from those losses by negotiating a contractual warranty or indemnification term.
Recognized exceptions to the economic loss rule in Indiana include claims for negligent misrepresentation, where there is no privity of contract between a plaintiff and defendant and where there is a special or fiduciary relationship between a plaintiff and defendant.
The court focused on the negligent misrepresentation exception – which is bottomed on the principle that a plaintiff should be protected where it reasonably relies on advice provided by a defendant who is in the business of supplying information. (p. 17).
The furniture maker counter-plaintiff’s negligent misrepresentation claim versus the corporate president defendant failed based on the agent of a disclosed principal rule. Since all statements concerning the moisture content of the wood imputed to the counter-defendant’s president were made in his capacity as an agent of the corporate plaintiff/counter-defendant, the negligent misrepresentation claim failed.
The court also declined to find that there was a special relationship between the parties that took this case outside the scope of the economic loss rule. Under Indiana law, a garden-variety contractual relationship cannot be bootstrapped into a special relationship just because one side to the agreement has more formal training than the other in the contract’s subject matter.
Lastly, the court declined to find that the corporate officer defendant was in the business of providing information. Any information supplied to the counter-plaintiff was ancillary to the main purpose of the contract – the supply of wood products.
In the end, the court found that the counter-plaintiff negotiated for protection against defective wood products by inserting a contract term entitling it to $30/hour in labor costs for re-working deficient products. The court found that the counter-plaintiff’s damages should have been capped at the amount representing man hours expended in reconfiguring the damaged wood times $30/hour – an amount that totaled $11,000. (pp. 9-17, 24).
1/ This case provides a good statement of the economic loss rule as well as its philosophical underpinnings. It’s clear that where two commercially sophisticated parties are involved, the court will require them to bargain for advantageous contract terms that protect them from defective goods or other contingencies;
2/ Where a corporate officer acts unintentionally (i.e. is negligent only), his actions will not bind his corporate employer under the agent of a disclosed principal rule;
3/ A basic contractual relationship between two merchants won’t qualify as a “special relationship” that will take the contract outside the limits of Indiana’s economic loss rule.
** Hadley v. Baxendale is the seminal breach of contract case that involves consequential damages. The case stands for the proposition that the non-breaching party’s recoverable damages must be foreseeable (ex: if X fails to deliver widgets to Y and Y loses a $1M account as a result, X normally wouldn’t be responsible for the $1M loss (unless Y made it clear to X that if X breached, Y would lose the account, e.g.) [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hadley_v_Baxendale]