Archive for category Contract Law
Real estate agent not authorised to accept termination notice given under s.31 of Sale of Land Act 1962
A purchaser of land in Victoria may terminate the contract “at any time before the expiration of three clear business days” after signing the contract. See: s.31(2) of the Sale of Land Act 1962 (Vic). The termination notice must be “given to the vendor or his agent” or left at an address specified in the contract. See: s.31(3). Termination entitles the purchaser to the return of most of the moneys paid under the contract. See: s.31(4).
In Eng Kiat Tan and Cheng Lo v Thomas Russell  VSC 93 the Supreme Court of Victoria had to decide whether the vendor’s real estate agent was an “agent” for the purpose of being given a termination notice.
The High Court has said that the employment of a real estate agent to find a buyer of property does not necessarily create any authority to do anything which will affect the legal position of the employer; an agent does not even have implied authority to receive the purchaser money. See: Peterson v Maloney (1951) 84 CLR 91. In Brien v Dwyer (1978) 141 CLR 378 Gibbs J said that the expression “agent”, when used in relation to a real estate agent, was misleading because “Such so-called agents do not have a general authority to act on behalf of a vendor in relation to a contract.”
In Eng Kiat Tan the purchasers gave the termination notice to the real estate before the expiration of three clear business days after signing the contract. The vendor refused to accept that the contract had been terminated pursuant to the Act. The sale price was $4,480,000. The vendor resold the land to another purchaser for $4,070,000. The purchasers commenced a proceeding seeking recovery of the deposit and the vendor counterclaimed seeking the balance of the deposit and the loss suffered on the resale of the property. The purchasers claim failed and the vendor’s claim succeeded.
The purchaser argued that s.31 was remedial legislation and that the expression “agent”in s.31 must extend to the vendor’s real estate because, among other things, the purchaser had only three days to make inquiries as whether a person was or was not an “agent” with authority to accept the termination notice. The purchaser also referred to Lloyd and Rimmer’s Sale of Land Act Victoria where the authors say that for the purpose of s.31 “agent” includes but is not limited to the estate agent engaged by the vendor in connection with the sale.
The vendor argued that s 31 did not create a statutory authority to receive a termination notice: the purchaser had to establish that the vendor’s real estate had actual or ostensible authority to accept the termination notice and there were no facts which established any authority in the vendor’s real estate agent beyond that usually granted to real estate agent.
The trial judge held that s.31 did not create a statutory authority in a real estate agent to accept a termination notice.
Purchasers need to ensure that the sale contract identifies the person or persons upon whom a termination notice under s. 31 can be given or the place where a notice can be left.
Vendors who terminate contracts for the sale of land on the ground of a default by the purchaser often claim interest on moneys that have not been paid calculated from the date of the breach to the date of termination. Clause 25 of the general conditions of the standard form of contract concerning the sale of land prescribed by the Estate Agents (Contracts) Regulations 2008 (Vic) provides that:
“A party who breaches this contract must pay to the other party on demand:
…… ; and
(b) any interest due under this contract as a result of the breach.”
Does clause 25(b) entitle a vendor to interest on the contract price from the date of a breach by a purchaser to the date the vendor terminates the contract?
Two cases in the Supreme Court of Victoria suggest that the answer to this question is “yes”. In Portbury Development Co Pty Ltd v Mackali  VSC 69 the plaintiff sold a property for $1,600,000 with a deposit of $60,000, with the balance of purchase price payable on a nominated date. The defendant failed to complete and the plaintiff terminated the contract. The court accepted that the plaintiff’s termination was valid. The plaintiff’s claim included damages being, among other things, the difference between the contract price and the value of the property at the time of termination and “interest between default and rescission” based on a clause similar to clause 25. The court awarded the amount of interest claimed to the plaintiff, noting that such interest was under the terms of the condition payable on demand and remarking at :
“By the notice of rescission the plaintiff made an appropriate demand for that interest. Accordingly, the plaintiff is entitled to judgment against the defendant for the sum of interest claimed by it.”
In Pettiona v Whitbourne  VSC 205 the facts were similar to those in Portbury. The price of the property was $5,850,000. The purchaser failed to pay the balance of purchase price on the date nominated for settlement. A notice of default was served and the contract was terminated. The plaintiff claimed, amongst other things, interest on the unpaid balance for the period of default. The claim for interest, which was made under the terms of the contract, was not disputed by the defendant.
A recent case in the County Court of Victoria suggests that the answer to the question posed is “no”. In Yvonne Maria Van Der Peet Bill v Allan James Clarke  VCC 1721 Judge Macnamara declined to follow Portbury and Pettiona in deciding that a vendor of land was not entitled to interest from the date of the breach to the date of the termination of the contract. At  His Honour analysed the issue as follows:
“To put it in a nutshell, how can interest be awarded upon an alleged principal sum that ultimately was never payable?”
In answering that question His Honour said it was necessary to go to “some fundamental principles of the law of vendor and purchaser” and “one of Sir Owen Dixon’s most celebrated judgments” in McDonald v Dennys Lascelles Limited (1933) 48 CLR 457 at 477-479. In McDonald the guarantors of a purchaser’s obligations under a terms contract contended that upon termination by the vendor the contract was cancelled as to the future and, because there would be no transfer of the property, the purchaser’s obligation to pay an outstanding instalment of the purchaser price came to an end. The High Court accepted the guarantors’ contention. Because the guarantors’ obligation was a secondary one their obligation was also terminated.
His Honour also considered the decision of the New South Wales Court of Appeal in Carpenter v McGrath (1996) 40 NSWLR 39 which he said accorded with the general principles that emerged from McDonald. In Carpenter the purchaser failed to complete a contract to buy land and the trial judge awarded damages to the vendor which included a claim for interest from default until termination. On appeal the Court of Appeal disallowed the claim for interest from default until termination. The Court’s reasoning was in effect that once the contract ended the vendor could not have sued for the purchase price and was relegated to a claim for the loss of the bargain. The interest operated to increase the amount payable on completion and because the purchase moneys were not payable interest could not be claimed.
Judge Macnamara said that while Portbury and Pettiona supported the award of interest, general principle flowing from the analysis in McDonald pointed away from an award being made and therefore the claim for interest failed.
A question that is unresolved is whether the position might have been different if the vendor had re-sold the land rather than retaining it because the vendor would, in determining the loss on any resale, arguably have been entitled to treat the purchase price as constituted both by the contract price and the interest payable under the contract.
Tenants with less than 20 employees will soon have a new weapon in disputes with landlords as a result of amendments to the Australian Consumer Law: they will be able to challenge a term in a lease that is “unfair”.
The legislation effecting the changes, the Treasury Legislation Amendment (Small Business and Unfair Contract Terms) Act 2015, has received Royal Assent but the changes do not come into force until November 2016. The changes will affect contracts (including leases) entered into or renewed on and from 12 November 2016. The changes will also apply to a provision in a contract that is varied on or after that date.
The legislation extends the existing unfair contract provisions available to consumers in Part 2-3 of the ACL to small businesses with less than 20 employees when the contract is entered into. Similar changes have been made to the Australian Securities and Investment Commission Act 2001.
In determining the number of employees casual employees are not counted unless the employee is employed “on a regular and systematic basis”. To be able to challenge an “unfair” term the “upfront price payable” must not exceed $300,000 (if the lease has a duration of 12 months or less) or $1,000,000 (if the lease has a duration of more than 12 months). Because payments under a lease are usually made monthly it is unclear how the “upfront price payable” is to be calculated.
A term of a lease will be void if the term is “unfair” and the lease is a “standard form contract”. A term is “unfair” only if it:
- would cause a significant imbalance in the parties’ rights and obligations under the contract;
- is not reasonable necessary to protect the legitimate interests of the advantaged party;
- it would cause financial or other detriment to the business affected if it were applied or relied on.
A lease will be presumed to be a “standard form contract” if a party to a proceeding makes that allegation unless another party proves otherwise. In determining whether a lease is a standard form contract a court may take into account matters that it considers relevant but must take into account whether one party has all or most of the bargaining power, whether the leased was prepared by one party before any discussions occurred, whether a party was in effect required to accept or reject the terms and whether a party was given an effective opportunity to negotiate the terms.
If a term is declared void the lease will continue to bind the parties if it can operate without the unfair term.
To ensure that the legislation does not apply landlords should consider deleting lease terms that are not reasonably necessary for their protection and avoid “take it or leave it” type negotiations. Where it is unclear whether a prospective tenant is likely to have 20 employees a landlord might also consider including a term in the lease that requires the tenant to declare how many employees it does have.
In Cassegrain v Gerard  HCA 2 the High Court of Australian had to decide whether a wife’s title as a joint proprietor with her husband was defeasible by reason of the husband’s fraud. The case contains an interesting discussion about when the fraudulent acts of an agent can be attributed to the principal and also the nature of a joint tenancy.
Section 42(1) of the Real Property Act 1900 (NSW) provides that the estate of a registered proprietor is paramount. It provides that, subject to some exceptions:
“Notwithstanding the existence in any other person of any estate or interest which but for this Act might be held to be paramount or to have priority, the registered proprietor for the time being of any estate or interest in land recorded in a folio of the Register shall, except in case of fraud, hold the same, subject to such other estates and interests and such entries, if any, as are recorded in that folio, but absolutely free from all other estates and interests that are not so recorded“. (emphasis added)
Section 118(1) provides that:
“Proceedings for the possession or recovery of land do not lie against the registered proprietor of the land, except as follows:
(d) proceedings brought by a person deprived of land by fraud against:
(i) a person who has been registered as proprietor of the land though fraud; or
(ii) a person deriving (otherwise as a transferee bona fide for valuable consideration) from or through a person registered as proprietor of the land through fraud.”
The vendor transferred the land to the husband and wife as joint tenants for consideration to be satisfied by debiting the husband’s loan account with the vendor. The husband knew that the vendor did not owe him the amount recorded in the loan account. The husband then transferred his interest in the land to his wife for a nominal consideration. The questions were whether the wife’s title, first as joint proprietor with her husband, or second deriving from or through her husband under the subsequent transfer, was defeasible by the vendor.
Much attention was given in argument to whether the husband was the wife’s “agent”. In Assets Company Ltd v Mere Roihi  AC 176 at 210 Lord Lindley that:
“the fraud which must be proved in order to invalidate the title of a registered purchaser for value … must be brought home to the person whose registered title is impeached or to his agents. Fraud by persons from whom he claims does not affect him unless knowledge of it is brought home to him or his agents.” (emphasis added)
The argument was about whether the fraud was “brought home” to the wife because the husband was fraudulent and was her “agent”. It was not disputed that the husband acted fraudulently in both the first and second transfers.
The court rejected the contention that the husband’s fraud could be sheeted home to the wife as a matter of agency. The court referred to the statement by Street J in Schultz v Corwill Properties Pty Ltd 1969] 2 NSWR 576 where his Honour said :
“It is not enough simply to have a principal, a man who is acting as his agent, and knowledge in that man of the presence of a fraud. There must be the additional circumstance that the agent’s knowledge of the fraud is to be imputed to his principal. This approach is necessary in order to give full recognition to (a) the requirement that there must be a real, as distinct from a hypothetical or constructive, involvement by the person whose title is impeached, in the fraud, and (b) the extension allowed by the Privy Council that the exception of fraud under s 42 can be made out if ‘knowledge of it is brought home to him or his agents’.”
There was no evidence that the wife was knowingly engaged in the husband’s scheme to deprive the vendor its land for nothing.
The majority (French CJ, Hayne, Bell and Gaegler JJ) held that the wife’s title as joint tenant was not defeasible by showing that the husband had acted fraudulently because the fraud had not been brought home to her.
Keane J dissented on this issue. His Honour decided that the land was acquired by the wife and the husband as joint tenants and as joint tenants they acquired a single estate. The title was acquired by fraud “sheeted home” to the wife, not because the wife claimed the title through her husband, but by virtue of the joint tenancy of the single estate to which they were entitled.
The vendor succeeded in recovering the land because the whole court decided that s.118(1)(d)(ii) applied: the wife had acquired an interest as tenant in common as to half from the husband who had been registered as proprietor through fraud.
Tenants should dispute the rent specified by a landlord at a rent review date within the time specified by the lease. Dire consequences can follow if the time periods are ignored . The rent review process for setting the market rent commonly provides for:
- the landlord to propose the new rent and, if the tenant does not object within a specified period of time, the rent proposed by the landlord is the new rent;
- the rent to be determined by a valuer if the tenant objects to the rent proposed by the landlord.
The question often arises whether time is of the essence in the construction of clauses concerning rent reviews.
The starting point is the House of Lords decision United Scientific Holdings Ltd v Burnley Borough Council (1978) AC 904. In Mailman & Associates Pty Ltd v Wormald (Aust) Pty Ltd (1991) 24 NSWLR 80 (CA) Gleeson CJ referred with apparent approval to a summary of the effect of United Scientific in the judgment of Slade LJ in Trustees of Henry Smith’s Charity v AWADA Trading and Promotion Services Ltd (1983) 47 P & CR 607, 619 as follows:
“(1) Where a rent review clause confers on a landlord or tenant a right for his benefit or protection, as part of the procedure for ascertaining the new rent, and that right is expressed to be exercisable within a specified time, there is a rebuttable presumption of construction that time is not intended to be of the essence in relation to any exercise of that right.
(2) In a case where the presumption applies, the other party concerned may, if he wishes to bring matters to a head after the stipulated time for the exercise of the right has expired, give to the owner of the right a notice specifying a period within which he requires the right to be exercised, if at all; the period thus specified will if it is reasonable then become of the essence of the contract …
(3) The presumption is rebuttable by sufficient ‘contraindications in the express words of the lease or in the interrelation of the rent review clause itself and other clauses or in the surrounding circumstances.’ …
(4) Though the best way of rebutting the presumption is to state expressly that stipulations as to the time by which steps provided for by the rent review clause are to be taken is to be treated as being of the essence (see United Scientific Holdings Ltd v Bunley Borough Council per Lord Diplock [ AC] at 936, and per Lord Salmon [ AC] at 947), this is not the only way. Any form of expression which clearly evinces the concept of finality attached to the end of the period or periods prescribed will suffice to rebut the presumption. The parties are quite free to contract on the basis that time is to be of the essence if they so wish.”
The authorities make it plain that it is a question of construction of a lease whether there is express or implied rebuttal of the presumption that time is not of the essence
In Mailman the rent review provision the lease allowed the tenant a specific time to dispute the lessor’s assessment of the market rent and spelt out the consequence of failing to dispute the assessment within than time. There was no clause stating that time was of the essence. The relevant clauses were as follows:
“Prior to the expiration of fourteen (14) days…[from the service of the lessor’s notice], the Lessee may, by notice in writing, dispute the amount set out..[in the Lessor’s notice}…(clause 2.02(b))”
Another clause provided that if the lessee did not serve a notice of dispute within the prescribed time it was deemed to have agreed that the amount set out in the notice was current market rental.
The Court of Appeal held unanimously that the lease evidenced an intention that the 14 day time stipulation was of the essence. The decisive factor was the deeming of the tenant to have agreed to the rent if it failed to serve the notice of dispute.
The issue of whether time periods in rent review clauses are of the essence was revisited recently in Sentinel Asset Management Pty Ltd v Primo Moratis  QSC 200. The tenant failed to serve a notice disputing the rent specified by the landlord within the time prescribed by the lease with the consequence that iff time was of the essence the rent would increase by 22%. The critical clause provided that:
“Unless the Tenant gives the Landlord a notice stating that the Tenant’s assessment of the current annual market rent of the Premises at the relevant Market Review Date within 30 days after the Landlord gives the its notice, the Rent on and from the relevant Market Review Date is the current annual market rent in the Landlord’s notice.”
The lease also said that if “the Tenant gives a notice…. on time” (underlining added) the parties must attempt to agree the rent in writing failing which a valuer could be be appointed to determine the market rent.
The court found that time was of the essence with the consequence that the rent specified by the landlord applied.
The court also rejected an argument that the rent specified by the landlord had to be “reasonable”. The rent specified by the landlord in its notice was higher than the rent contained in an expert valuation obtained by the landlord.
The lesson is that it is critical for tenants to respond within the time prescribed by the lease.
Date of termination confirmed as the date for assessing damages for breach of contract for sale of land
The general rule is that damages for a breach of a contract for the sale of land are assessed at the date of the breach. The task is usually to compare the contract price with the value of the land a the time of the breach. If the value is greater than the contract price, the vendor has suffered no loss. But if the value is less than the contract price, it may be inferred that the discrepancy is an element of the vendor’s loss (Vitek v Estate Homes Pty Ltd  NSWSC 237 at ).
In Ng v Filmlock Pty Ltd  NSWCA 389 the NSW Court of Appeal heard an appeal by a purchaser of land from a judgment where the trial judge had assessed the vendor’s loss as being the difference between the contract price and the price obtained on a resale. The contract restricted the use of the resale price as an element in the quantification of loss to a resale within 12 months of termination but otherwise the vendor was entitled to damages for breach of contract. The resale took place more than 12 months after termination and therefore the general law applied. The land had declined significantly in value by the time of the resale.
The vendor argued that there was no available market as at the date of the breach of contract and therefore the resale price was relevant to the calculation of loss. The argument was based on a proposition said to be derived from the decision of the English Court of Appeal in Hooper v Oates  Ch 287: the correct date for assessment of damages for breach of contract is the date of breach only where there is an immediately available market for the subject matter of the sale.
Emmett JA, after noting that the English Court of Appeal did not explain what was meant by an “immediately available market”, said at :
“While a sale of land might take longer than the sale of other types of assets, it does not follow that there should be a departure from the general rule, which focuses on the value of the land as at the date of termination of the contract. There is good reason for that approach where the damages sought by the innocent seller are loss of bargain damages. The critical date is when the bargain was lost.”
While the appeal was successful the court accepted that in an appropriate case the interests of justice may require that “the date of breach” rule should not apply and damages may be assessed by reference to a later date, such as the contract price on resale. See: Johnson v Perez (1988) 166 CLR 351 at 367.
Gleeson JA said at :
“….whether a market value may be assessed in the case of land as at “the date of breach” is ultimately a question of fact. Of necessity, the sale of land will generally require a period to elapse for proper marketing. Unsuccessful attempts by a vendor to resell the property are not determinative as to whether there is no market for the land. Much will depend on the usual method of sale for the land in question having regard to its location, particular characteristics, the range of likely interested purchasers, and the time usually required for proper marketing of land of that type. Expert valuation evidence is likely to have a significant role.”
And at :
“It needs to be emphasised that that departure from the general rule is not a matter of discretion: Clark v Macourt  HCA 56 at  (Keane J). A vendor claiming damages assessed at a date later than “the date of breach” must demonstrate that there are particular reasons on the facts which would make it unjust to apply the prima face or “usual” measure of damages.”
The issue of whether a lease requires a rent review or whether the review is at the discretion of the landlord often arises. The problem can avoided by clear drafting. In Growthpoint Properties Australian Limited v Austalia Pacific Airports  VSC 556 the court had to decide whether a rent review was mandatory under the lease or whether the review was at the discretion of the landlord.
Clause 4.2 of the lease provided that:
“On each Market Review Date, the Rent is to be adjusted by a market review in accordance with the Market Review Method….”
Part B of the Lease provided:
“On each Market Review Date, the Rent will be adjusted by a market review if:
(a) APAM gives written notice to the Tenant (“Rent Review Notice”) setting out APAM’s opinion of the market rent for the Premises as at the Market Review Date; and
(b) the Rent Review Notice is given to the Tenant in the period between 6 months before and 6 months after the Market Review Date.
New Rent applies unless a dispute notice is served.
The Rent stated in the Rent Review Notice applies from the Market Review Date unless the Tenant gives APAM a notice disputing the specified Rent (“Dispute Notice”) within 21 days after the Rent Review Notice is given.”
The controversy between the tenant and the landlord arose from the imperative language in clause 4.2 (“is to be adjusted”) and the use of the conditional language in Part B (“will be adjusted”).
The tenant contended that the clauses, when read together were ambiguous and that there was a conflict between the clauses. On the tenant’s construction of the lease the landlord was obliged to initiate a rent review.
The landlord submitted that the rent provisions gave the landlord an entitlement, but not an obligation, to give the lessee a rent review notice.
The court held that the rent provisions gave the landlord an entitlement, but not an obligation, to give the lessee a rent review notice.
The case is useful because it discusses in detail the principles governing the construction of leases and rent review clauses and highlights the need to examine the lease as a whole. Of particular interest is the discussion about the purpose of rent review clauses: the House of Lords in United Scientific Holdings Ltd v Burnley Borough Council  AC 904 viewed the benefit of a rent review to the landlord as being the ability to adjust rent market with the benefit to the tenant being seen as the security of a long lease.
The lease in Growthpoint was a commercial lease. If the lease is a “retail premises lease” a tenant may initiate a rent review if the landlord fails to do so within 90 days after the period provided for in the lease for the review. See: s.35(5) of the Retail Leases Act 2003.
A vendor who has terminated a contract for the sale of land should be wary of serving a second notice to complete because the second notice revives the agreement that has been terminated.
In Rona v Shimden  NSWSC 818 a vendor under a contract of sale claiming to have terminated the contract, gave notice to complete which was expressed to be without prejudice to its contention that the contract was terminated. White J at  analysed the position as follows:
The giving of a notice to complete may give rise to an estoppel which precludes the party giving the notice from asserting that the contract has been terminated. Here, the purchaser did not do anything consequent upon the service of the notice which could create such an estoppel. Estoppel aside, the service of a notice to complete without prejudice to a prior notice of termination takes effect as an offer to revive the agreement, capable of being accepted by performance in accordance with the terms of the notice to complete: Lohar Corporation Pty Ltd v Dibu Pty Ltd (1976) 1 BPR 9177 at 9184, 9187.
In Naval and Military Club v Southraw  VSC 593 Byrne J accepted this analysis. See: also Portbury Development Co Pty Ltd v Ottedin Investments Pty Ltd & Ors  VSC 57.
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The High Court has rejected the notion that the onus of proof in relation to detrimental reliance can shift to the party said to be estopped. In Sidhu v Van Dyke  HCA 19 0the Court had to consider the sufficiency of proof of detrimental reliance required to given rise to an equitable estoppel (proprietary estoppel).
The appellant and his wife owned land as joint tenants.
The trial judge found that the appellant had promised to give the respondent part of the land owned by him and his wife once that land was subdivided.
The appellant and the respondent formed a relationship which resulted in the respondent’s husband leaving her.
The respondent did not seek a property settlement from her husband because of the promises made by the appellant.
The trial judge accepted that respondent had worked on the land and gave up opportunities for employment and that these activities might be sufficient to amount to detrimental reliance for the purpose of an equitable estoppel; however, Her Honour concluded that the respondent may well have done all or most of those things in any event.
This conclusion was based on answers given by the respondent in the course of cross-examination. The trial judge also held that it was not reasonable for the respondent to rely on a promise of a transfer of land when performance depended on the land being subdivided and the consent of the appellant’s wife.
The Court of Appeal upheld the respondent’s contention that the trial judge erred in holding that it was unreasonable to rely on the promises.
The Court of Appeal also held that the onus of proof in relation to detrimental reliance shifted to the party said to be estopped (ie the male appellant) where inducement by the promise could be inferred from the conduct of the claimant (ie the respondent).
The Court of Appeal held that an award of equitable compensation measured by reference to the value of the respondent’s disappointed expectation was the appropriate form of relief, being the value of the land at the date of judgment.
The High Court rejected the notion that the onus of proof in relation to detrimental reliance shifted: reliance was a fact that had to be found and not imputed on the basis of evidence that fell short of proof of the fact; the respondent at all times bore the legal burden of proving that she had been induced to rely upon the appellant’s promises.
The Court said that the real question was the appropriate inference to be drawn from the whole of the evidence. The Court also held that the evidence established reliance.
As to the relief, the High Court said that “this category of equitable estoppel serves to vindicate the expectations of the represented against a party who seek unconscionably to resile from an expectation he or she has created”. See: French CJ, Keifel, Bell and Keane JJ at .
Had the respondent been induced to make a relatively small, readily quantifiable monetary outlay on the faith of the appellant’s assurances, then it might not be unconscionable for the appellant to resile from his promises to the respondent on condition that he reimburse her for the outlay.
However, the Court decided that this case was one to which the observations of Nettle JA in Donis v Donis (2007 19 VR 577, at 588-589 were apposite:
“[H]ere, the detriment suffered is of a kind and extent that involves life-changing decisions with irreversible consequences of a profoundly personal nature…beyond the measure of money and such that the equity raised by the promisor’s conduct can only be accounted for by the substantial fulfillment of the assumption upon which the respondent’s actions were based.”
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A wise senior building barrister once said to me that in analysing a legal problem you should “always start with the money” – that is analyse what methodology underlies or underpins the claim for damages.
Too often little thought is given to how damages should be calculated before a proceeding is commenced.
In December 2013 the High Court in Clark v Macourt  HCA 56 gave a decision concerning damages in a breach of contract case that has caused much discussion.
A person who provided assisted reproductive technology services to patients purchased the assets and practice of a company providing similar services.
The assets included a stock of frozen donated sperm.
A guarantor guaranteed the vendor’s obligations under the contract.
The vendor warranted that the identification of donors of the sperm complied with specified guidelines; however, of the stock of sperm delivered, 1,996 straws which the purchaser would have expected to be able to use were not as warranted and were unusable.
The vendor could not buy suitable replacement sperm in Australia but could in the USA.
The primary judge found that buying 1,996 straws of replacement sperm from the American supplier would have cost about $1 million at the time the contract was breached. The purchase price for the assets (including the stock of frozen donated sperm) was less than $400,000. The purchaser could not have made any profit from the frozen donated sperm because ethically she could not charge, and in fact had not charged, any patient a fee for using donated sperm greater than the amount the purchaser had outlaid to acquire it.
The question was, how should the purchaser’s damages for breach of warranty be fixed? The primary judge gave judgment against the vendor and the guarantor for the costs incurred in purchasing replacement sperm from the USA.
This was overturned by the NSW Court of Appeal which held that the purchaser had avoided any loss she would have suffered by purchasing replacement sperm and had charged each patient a fee which covered the costs of buying the sperm.
The High Court of Australia held 4:1 – that the appeal should be allowed and reinstated the decision of the primary judge with the consequence that the vendor’s loss and therefore the damages were $1 million.
The methodology underlying the decision was entirely uncontroversial: the principle according to which damages for breach of contract are awarded is that the damages should put the promisee in the same situation, so far as money can do it as it would have been in if the broken promise had been performed.
Damages are assessed at the date of the breach. The case emphasises the importance of carefully considering how the claim is pleaded: in this case at the date of the breach the purchaser was in the position where she had to buy a $1 million worth of sperm to replace what she had lost.
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