Breach of Contract: Remedies


The five basic remedies for breach of contract include the following: money damages, restitution, rescission, reformation, and specific performance. A money damage award includes a sum of money that is given as compensation for financial losses caused by a breach of contract. Parties injured by a breach are entitled to the benefit of the bargain they entered, or the net gain that would have accrued but for the breach. The type of breach governs the extent of damages that may be recovered.

If the breach is a total breach, a plaintiff can recover damages in an amount equal to the sum or value the plaintiff would have received had the contract been fully performed by the defendant, including lost profits. If the breach is only partial, the plaintiff may normally seek damages in an amount equal to the cost of hiring someone else to complete the performance contemplated by the contract. However, if the cost of completion is prohibitive and the portion of the unperformed contract is small, many courts will only award damages in an amount equal to the difference between the diminished value of the contract as performed and the full value contemplated by the contract.

For example, if the plaintiff agreed to pay the defendant $200,000 to build a house, but the defendant only completed 90 percent of the work contemplated by the contract, a court might be inclined to award $20,000 in damages if it would cost the plaintiff twice as much to hire someone else to finish the last 10 percent. The same principles apply to damages sought for contracts that are fully performed, but in a defective manner. If the defect is significant, the plaintiff can recover the cost of repair. But if the defect is minor, the plaintiff may be limited to recovering the difference between the value of the good or service actually received and the value of the good or service contemplated by the contract.

Restitution is a remedy designed to restore the injured party to the position occupied prior to the formation of the contract. Parties seeking restitution may not request to be compensated for lost profits or other earnings caused by a breach. Instead, restitution aims at returning to the plaintiff any money or property given to the defendant under the contract. Plaintiffs typically seek restitution when contracts they have entered are voided by courts due to a defendant’s incompetence or incapacity. The law allows incompetent and incapacitated persons to disavow their contractual duties but generally only if the plaintiff is not made worse off by their disavowal.

Parties that are induced to enter into contracts by mistake, fraud, undue influence, or duress may seek to have the contract set aside or have the terms of the contract rewritten to do justice in the case. Rescission is the name for the remedy that terminates the contractual duties of both parties, while reformation is the name for the remedy that allows courts to change the substance of a contract to correct inequities that were suffered. Like contracts implied in law, however, courts are reluctant to rewrite contracts to reflect the parties’ actual agreement, especially when the contract as written contains a mistake that could have been rectified through pre-contract investigation. Thus, one court would not reform a contract that stipulated an incorrect amount of acreage being purchased, since the buyer could have ascertained the correct amount by obtaining a land survey before entering the contract. Little Stillwater Holding Corp. v. Cold Brook Sand & Gravel Corp., 151 Misc. 2d 457, 573 N.Y.S.2d 382 (N.Y. Co. Ct. 1991).

Specific performance is an equitable remedy that compels one party to perform, as nearly as practicable, his or her duties specified by the contract. Specific performance is available only when money damages are inadequate to compensate the plaintiff for the breach. This ruling often happens when the subject matter of a contract is in dispute.

Every parcel of land by definition is unique, if for no other reason than its location. However, rare articles that are not necessarily one of a kind are still treated by the law as unique if it would be impossible for a judge or jury to accurately calculate the appropriate amount of damages to award the plaintiff in lieu of awarding him or her the unique article contemplated by the contract. Heirlooms and antiques are examples of such rare items for which specific performance is usually available as a remedy. However, specific performance may never be invoked to compel the performance of a personal service, since doing so would constitute slavery in violation of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.