In Colorado, courts enforce liquidated damages provisions if three elements are satisfied: (1) the parties intended to liquidate damages; (2) the amount of liquidated damages was a reasonable estimate of the presumed actual damages caused by a breach; and (3) at the time of contracting, it was difficult to ascertain the amount of actual damages that would result from a breach. But what happens when a contract gives a party a right to choose between liquidated damages or actual damages? This seems troublesome because it allows a party to set the floor for their damages without limitation if actual damages exceed the contractual amount. As a matter of first impression, the Colorado Supreme Court addressed this issue in Ravenstar, LLC v. One Ski Hill Place, LLC, 401 P.3d 552 (Colo. 2017).
In Ravenstar, plaintiffs contracted to buy condominiums from a developer. As part of their contracts, plaintiffs deposited earnest money and construction deposits equal to 15% of each unit’s purchase price. Plaintiffs breached their contract by failing to obtain financing and failing to close by the closing date. Each contract’s damages provision provided that if a purchaser defaulted, the developer had the option to retain all or some of the deposits as liquidated damages or, alternatively, to pursue actual damages and apply the deposits to that award. After plaintiffs defaulted, the developer chose to keep plaintiffs’ deposits as liquidated damages. Plaintiffs sued for return of their deposits.