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Stonebraker v. Zinn

    Brief Fact Summary. After a couple stopped making mortgage payments, the seller enforced a liquidated damages clause.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. A clause for damages is only a penalty when the amount is grossly disproportional in comparison to the damages actually incurred.

    Facts. Richard and Mildred Zinn (Defendants) agreed to sell a house to Samuel and Diana Stonebraker (Plaintiffs). A deed of trust lien was given previously to a bank, which Defendants acknowledged to Plaintiffs. Upon full payment by Plaintiffs, Defendants had to convey marketable title to the property by deed. Defendants agreed to make payments on the note secured by the deed of trust. The contract provided for liquidated damages in the event Plaintiffs abandoned the property, and the amount was the amount Plaintiffs had paid on the purchase price at the time of abandonment. One year after moving in, Plaintiffs notified Defendants that they could not afford both the costs associated with the house, and vacated the property. Plaintiffs claim that the forfeiture clause is a penalty because the damages are grossly disproportional to actual damages, and so should be unenforceable.

    Issue. Is a clause for damages a penalty when the amount is grossly disproportional in comparison to the damages actually incurred?

    Held. Yes.
    In determining whether the amount paid by a purchaser through liquidated damages under an installment land contract is so grossly disproportional to the damages actually incurred, courts will look at the loss of fair rental value to the seller, the costs involved in the sale of property, depreciation, attorney fees, and other directly related expenses arising by virtue of the purchaser’s abandonment of the property.
    Here, the amount retained by the Defendants was not excessive. Defendants had to assume responsibility of the rental payments and expenses for selling the property a second time. The amount includes the down payment plus monthly rental payments for twelve months. Taking into account the expenses Defendants assumed when regaining the property, the amount retained is not excessive.

    Discussion. A buyer only has a right to be reimbursed for his down payment when the amount so exceeds the seller’s damages as to constitute a forfeiture.


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