Liquidated damages provisions in commercial and residential real estate contracts play a vital role when a transaction goes south, and should be given careful consideration when negotiating a real estate contract. Liquidated damages may be referred to in a variety of ways, such as “earnest money,” a “good-faith deposit,” or a “non-refundable deposit,” but each typically denote a negotiated amount of money that a seller is entitled to retain should a buyer breach a purchase and sale agreement. The purpose of liquidated damages is to provide the parties with certainty when actual damages arising from a breach of contract may be difficult to calculate. Accordingly, liquidated damages provisions alleviate the need for potentially expensive litigation associated with proving damages.
While parties are free to negotiate the amount of liquidated damages, the amount must approximate the loss anticipated at the time of contracting, or the loss that actually occurs as a result of a breach. Arizona courts have held that where the amount of liquidated damages is unreasonably large when compared to the anticipated loss or actual loss, the liquidated damages provision is unenforceable as a penalty. A breaching party faced with high liquidated damages will often seek to invalidate the provision as a penalty. If a court agrees, the non-breaching party may still recover damages, but must go through the process of proving such damages. Therefore, when negotiating a real estate contract, consideration should be given as to whether a liquidated damages amount is arbitrarily high when compared to an anticipated loss in the event of a breach.