Contract Drafting: Limitations of Liability & Exceptions

One of the most important functions of a contract is to reduce uncertainties and mitigate risks. That is why almost all professional or personal services contracts contain “limitations of liability” provisions. Although they may seem like densely-worded, “boilerplate” provisions, and often overlooked, these provisions broadly affect a party’s ability to bring a claim, show liability, and prove damages that can be recovered.

A limitation of liability clause is a provision in a contract that limits the amount of exposure a company faces in the event a lawsuit is filed or another claim is made. As a preliminary observation, it is important to note that enforcement of limitation of liability provisions vary from state to state. The general rule in contract law is that in the commercial context, many states have found these clauses to be a mere shifting of the risk and enforce them as written.

Limitations of Liability generally address two areas of concern. First, the types of claims that may be barred. Second, the amount or scope of liability for claims that are not barred.

Limiting The Type Of Claim

A typical limitation of liability clause may look something like this:

“IN NO EVENT SHALL A PARTY OR ITS DIRECTORS, OFFICERS, EMPLOYEES, OR AGENTS, BE LIABLE FOR ANY CONSEQUENTIAL, INCIDENTAL, SPECIAL, PUNITIVE, EXEMPLARY, OR INDIRECT DAMAGES, INCLUDING BUT NOT LIMITED TO ANY DAMAGES FOR LOST PROFITS. IN NO EVENT SHALL THE TOTAL LIABILITY OF A PARTY EXCEED THE AMOUNTS PAID BY CLIENT, IF ANY, FOR THE SERVICES.”

This clause limits the types of damages that may be claimed, prohibiting claims for:

  • Consequential damages (damages resulting naturally, but not necessarily, from the defendant’s wrongful conduct, BUT they must be foreseeable and directly traceable to the breach)
  • Incidental damages (includes costs incurred in a reasonable effort, whether successful or not, to avoid loss, or in arranging or attempting to arrange a substitute transaction)
  • Special damages (often treated the same as “consequential” by courts, “special” damages have been defined as those that arise from special circumstances known by the parties at the time the contract was made)
  • Punitive damages (damages that may be awarded which compensate a party for the exceptional losses suffered due to egregious conduct; a way of punishing the wrongful conduct and/or preventing future, similar conduct)
  • Exemplary damages (See “Punitive damages”)
  • Indirect damages (See “Consequential damages”)
  • Lost Profits (Cases in New York (and elsewhere) have a held that a clause excluding “consequential damages” may no longer be enough to bar “lost profits” claims; therefore, consider including more specific provisions in contracts- if parties want to exclude lost profits for breach of contract, a clause specifically excluding “lost profits” should be included.)

Lost profits that do not directly flow from a breach are consequential damages, and thus typically excluded by a limitation of liability clause like that above. But lost profits can be considered general damages (and thus recoverable) where the non-breaching party bargained for those profits, and where the profits are a direct and probable result of the breach.

Limiting The Amount Of The Claim

If found to be enforceable, a limitation of liability clause can “cap” the amount of potential damages to which a party is exposed. The limit may apply to all claims arising during the course of the contract, or it may apply only to certain types of claims. Limitation of liability clauses typically limit the liability to one of the following amounts: (i) the compensation and fees paid under the contract; (ii) an sum of money agreed in advance; (iii) available insurance coverage; or (iv) a combination of the above.

Parties can and typically do agree in their contract that liability is capped at some dollar amount. If liability exists and if damages can be proved, then the aggrieved party recovers those damages, but only up to the agreed cap. Sometimes these are mutual; other times they are one-sided. Sometimes the cap is a fixed sum (e.g., “the amounts paid for the services” or “$100,000”). Other times, the parties may choose to tie the cap to the type of harm, (e.g. personal injury, property damage, violations of confidentiality obligations).

However, sometimes that parties may agree that certain types of harm should not be limited. These “exceptions” put the parties in the same position they would have occupied if there was no limitation of liability provision in effect. For example:

  • exposure for violations of intellectual property (copyright, trademark, trade secret, patent) or proprietary rights (right of publicity, right of privacy, contractually-defined proprietary information)
  • in the event of an obligation to indemnity and defend for 1) breach of intellectual property representations, and/or 2) third party intellectual property or proprietary rights
  • in the event of an obligation to indemnify because a party didn’t have the right to provide data or information
  • in the event of an obligation to indemnify and defend for non-compliance with data security standards
  • exposure for violations of confidentiality obligations
  • personal injury or property damage due to negligent acts or omissions

Best Practices

Businesses that rely upon limitation of liability clauses should periodically reexamine those clauses. Questions that you should be asking include: “what’s my maximum recovery if the other party breaches,” and “what’s my maximum liability if I breach?”

These are only effective if enforceable, that’s why drafting is key. According to many courts, following certain drafting guidelines will help reduce the likelihood that a limitation of liability clause will not be enforced. Such guidelines include:

  • Make the clause conspicuous: set the clause in bold face print or underline or otherwise place the clause apart from the rest of the text on the page on which it appears so that the other party is aware of its existence.
  • Make the language clear and concise: make sure that the clause is concise and unambiguous as it relates to the contract as a whole.
  • Identify specific risks: be specific in identifying the types of damages you think should be excluded.
  • Negotiate the clause: discuss the clause with the party that is signing the agreement and negotiate if there is a discrepancy.
  • Retain drafts of revisions: keep drafts of any revisions made to the limitation of liability clause so that you have proof that the clause was negotiated.
  • Add language stating that these damages are not recoverable even if they were, or should have been, foreseeable or known by the breaching party.
  • Recite that the limitation of liability clause is an agreed benefit of the bargain, and that it remains in effect even if any remedy under the contract fails of its essential purpose.
  • Consider including a liquidated damages clause for specific breaches, which would replace a damages claim.

DISCLAIMER: THIS IS NOT LEGAL ADVICE. Please consult  qualified attorney to discuss your specific situation.

If you are concerned about how to tighten your contracts, we may be able to help. We can review your contracts, your business practices, and advise on whether there is room for improvement.

Please contact us for a no-fee, no-obligation consultation. (866) 734-2568 David [at] adler-law.com

Zombie Cinderella ‘Survives’ Walt Disney’s Cinderella Trademark- No Likelihood of Confusion

United Trademark Holdings, Inc. (“Applicant”) appealed a decision by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office refusing registration of its “ZOMBIE CINDERELLA” trademark for dolls when the USPTO held that it was confusingly similar to the registered “WALT DISNEY’S CINDERELLA” trademark.

In any likelihood of confusion analysis, two key considerations are the similarities between the marks and the similarities between the goods at issue. Applicant demonstrated that the story of “Cinderella,” is a “well-known narrative … involving a beautiful young lady, her antagonistic stepsisters, a fairy godmother, a ball, a prince, and a pair of glass slippers, existing since at least as early as 1697.”

The USPTO cited to nine other doll lines that use the name “Cinderella” holding that: 1) the mark is weak, and 2) CINDERELLA is not the dominant component of the cited, registered mark. The court found that while the dominant part of the mark -the term CINDERELLA – was similar, use of the terms “Walt Disney” and “Zombie” differentiated the two. The USPTO also found that “the design element of “WALT DISNEY’S CINDERELLA” may function, for juvenile customers, as a stronger source indicator than the term CINDERELLA, because it depicts a specific version of Cinderella that is associated with the Walt Disney animated film” of the same name.

Lastly, although the word “zombie” has little significance or distinctiveness as a source indicator in the marketplace for toys, the combination of ZOMBIE with CINDERELLA creates a unitary mark with an incongruous impression.

Launch Designer Workshops By EDITOR-AT-LARGE: Contracts

Contracts for Interior Design Professionals

This crash course on legal contracts is designed for interior designers who are drafting a contract for the first time or wanting to make an existing one airtight.

There’s a reason you became a designer, and it probably didn’t have anything to do with lawyers and contracts.

You’re the expert in color, fabric, floor plans, and furniture schemes, not intellectual property and arbitration provisions. If you’re already confused, don’t fret. This crash course is designed for those drafting a contract for the first time or wanting to make an existing one airtight. Led by David Adler, an actual lawyer who understands the ins and outs of the design industry, this workshop will cover the clauses you need to protect yourself in the unfortunate event that something doesn’t work out as planned. Clients can be difficult enough. Don’t let legal trouble slow you down.

In this class, you will learn how to:

  • Define what you are doing for your client, as well as NOT doing for them
  • Make sure you get paid on time and in full
  • Protect yourself against outside factors that may affect cost and ability to complete a project
  • Give yourself a way to get out of your contract if things aren’t working

By the end of class, you will have:

  • A basic understanding of key contract terms and the reasons as to why they are there
  • A basic client agreement that you can use or customize

The Instructor, David Adler, is an attorney, nationally-recognized speaker, and founder of a boutique law practice focused on serving the needs of creative professionals in the areas of intellectual property, media, and entertainment law. He provides advice on choosing business structures, protecting creative concepts and ideas through copyright, trademark, related intellectual property laws and contracts, and structuring professional relationships. He has 17 years experience practicing law, including drafting and negotiating complex contracts and licenses with Fortune 500 companies, advising on securities laws (fundraising) and corporate governance, prosecuting and defending trademark applications, registrations, oppositions, and cancellations before the US Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO), and managing outside counsel. Currently recognized as an Illinois SuperLawyer® in the areas of Media and Entertainment Law, he was also a “Rising Star” for three years prior. He received his law degree from DePaul University College of Law in 1997 and a double BA in English and History from Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. Outside the practice of law, David is an Adjunct Professor of Music Law at DePaul College of Law, formerly chaired the Chicago Bar Association’s Media and Entertainment Law Committee, and is currently a member of the Illinois State Bar Association Intellectual Property Committee.

Identifying Intellectual Property Issues in Start-Ups – Live Webcast!

Do you work with start-up companies and need a basic understanding of the various intellectual property issues that can arise?

I will be co-presenting in this online seminar that will help you:

  • understand the trademark and copyright problems your client may encounter with branding;
  • learn how to protect your client’s branding once established;
  • familiarize your practice with patents, including what they protect, timing, and strategies to prevent inadvertent loss of patent rights before filing the application;
  • understand trade secrets and the importance of non-disclosure and confidentiality agreements;
  • recognize intellectual property issues relating to technology, including open source code and the cloud;
  • establish a proactive approach toward intellectual property ownership between cofounders, employees, and vendors; understand business names, domain names, promotional issues, and website content concerns.

The program qualifies for 1.5 hours MCLE credit.

I would like to personally invite you to attend the upcoming Law Ed program titled, “Identifying Intellectual Property Issues in Start-Ups,” which I will be co-presenting via live webcast on Tuesday, May 27th.

Presented by the ISBA Business Advice and Financial Planning Section

Co-Sponsored by the ISBA Intellectual Property Section

Owning Design: Protecting Original Design in an Age of Knock-Offs

A presentation on what goes into creating original designs and how these differ from copycats.

WHERE: Decoration & Design Building, J. Robert Scott Showroom, Suite 220

WHEN: Wednesday, October 2,2013 !2 p.m.

WHAT: From film to fashion, creative industries are taking steps to protect and promote original work. Designers and manufacturers need to know what steps they can take to protect their designs, their businesses, and their profits. The discussion will address issues related to how to protect original design (copyright & design patent) and the manufacturers (trademark, unfair competition).

WHO:

INTERIORS Magazine Editorial Director Michael Wollaeger

J. Robert Scott Founder Sally Sirkin Lewis

Designer Laura Kirar [Web Site]

Intellectual Property lawyer David Adler

Showroom reception to follow.

 

Download the full Fall Decoration & Design Building Market Brochure Here.

Copycat Conundrum: Tips For Protecting Original Furniture & Textile Designs

On October 2, 2013, I will be attending the Decoration & Design Building Fall Market where I am giving a presentatIon on protecting original furniture & textile designs. Those in attendance share a belief that style and design matter.

As designers and purveyors of good taste, you may spend months developing a concept, selecting materials, agonizing over the exact curve of the arm of a chair. Manufacturers may refine the design, invest in tooling to build it, promote it, and get it to market. Merchandise buyers may spend months reading, researching, attending events such as this to obtain and fill your showrooms and catalogue with ineffable elements of style. This is original, authentic design. Authentic designs—pieces produced by designers or their authorized manufacturers—are investments.

Therein lies the problem for today’s furniture designers and retailers. It takes intellectual and financial capital to conceive, create and produce good design. Yet, today’s consumer driven, price-focused economy is making it more and more difficult for a designer to protect and profit from the investment of this intellectual capital.

This presentation will focus on why certain designs are protectable, how to protect them, and how to defend against knock-offs.

Managing Risk: Legal Issues for Merchants & Affiliate Managers

I will be speaking at Affiliate Management Days SF 2013 (April 16-17, 2013) on the topic of “Managing Risk: Legal Issues for Merchants & Affiliate Managers.”

 

Affiliate marketing is one of the most cost-effective techniques for monetizing web site traffic and driving sales. Unfortunately, it has a reputation for high risk. While the industry is unlikely to ever be risk-free, it is possible to manage risk by: (1) understanding how techniques like behavioral and contextual targeting affect consumers, affiliates and merchants, (2) understanding the legal and regulatory environment, (3) understating risks involved with prospective marketing partners, (4) using and maintaining proper contracts that allocate risk and provide appropriate indemnifications, and (5) keeping informed about the changes in technology, marketing practices and the regulatory environment. Attendees will learn how to identify these issues and develop policies and procedures to keep informed about the current technology, marketing strategies and regulatory compliance.

 

Topics covered include:

 

  • Behavioral/Contextual Advertising
  • Regulatory/Industry Compliance : FTC Guides & Enforcement Actions
  • CAN-SPAM compliance
  • IP Law: Rules governing use of others™ Trademarks/Keywords, Right of Publicity/Endorsement Issues.
  • Identifying, protecting against, and disputing accusations of Click-Fraud

 

Geno Prussakov, the Founder & Chair of Affiliate Management Days and the CEO & founder of AM Navigator LLC did a pre-interview with me on Small Business Trends that can be found here.