Liquidated damages in construction contracts and the dangers of penalty

The inclusion of a liquidated damages clause in construction contracts is a common way of addressing what consequences will flow from a breach of contract during the life of the contract and when a build is ongoing. However, to be effective they must be well-drafted.

It is therefore important to understand exactly what is meant by this term, particularly if you find yourself in the unfortunate position of being the party in breach under the contract.

What are liquidated damages?

In their simplest form liquidated damages are fixed damages. They are a way of calculating what compensation a party will pay to another party to that contract, if it is in breach of its obligations. The party in breach is known as the defaulting party, and the party not in breach is the non-defaulting party.

A common example of liquidated damages clause is for delay of the contractor. This might be that the contractor will owe the principal $3000 in damages for each day of delay in achieving practical completion.

The exact amount of damages for a breach of contract can often be difficult to calculate at any given moment. Rather than a contract providing for an unquantified amount of damages, a liquidated damages clause fixes the sum of any damages in advance and includes details of the sum to be paid should a breach occur in the contract.

Are liquidated damages the same as agreed damages?

The short answer is ‘yes’. Other terms you may come across, which effectively mean the same thing as ‘liquidated damages’ include ‘pre-estimated damages’, ‘stipulated damages’, ‘liquidated and ascertained damages’ and ‘adjustment of time costs’.

Liquidated damages clauses in construction contracts

Liquidated damages clauses are useful in construction and other commercial contracts because they provide a degree of certainty for all parties as to what will happen should a breach of contract occur. A valid liquidation damages clause will fix the amount recoverable under the contract without the need for costly litigation.

It can sometimes be difficult to quantify the extent of any damage suffered when a build is ongoing. However, a liquidated damages clause will mean that here is no need for the non-defaulting party to undertake the time-consuming and complex process of proving their loss or damage with evidence. The clause also allows both parties to decide in advance exactly what their respective rights and liabilities will be in the event that a breach occurs.

Liquidated damages clauses are particularly relevant for construction contracts because they:

  • Allow the parties to quantify and be clear about risk allocation and their intentions should a breach of contract arise and also allow parties to clearly understand in advance how loss will be calculated should a breach occur;
  • Encourage all parties to comply with their respective contractual obligations in the knowledge that if a breach occurs the clause can be enforced without the need to resort to litigation;
  • Allow a contractor, at the time they are tendering, to factor the price of their exposure (the amount specified for liquidated damages it there is a breach) into their contract price;
  • Allow a contractor to compare the cost of accelerating works in order to achieve practical completion by a required date versus the amount of any liquidated damages sum that becomes due and payable if the date for practical completion is not achieved;
  • Provide a ceiling or cap on a contractor’s liability for damages for specified breaches of contract;
  • Provide a principal with a means to recover damages regardless of the amount of any actual loss; and
  • Do not require the non-defaulting party to mitigate their losses, in contrast to other forms of damages.

What if I want to claim non-liquidated damages?

In rare cases, a liquidated damages clause will mean the right to damages under general law, calculated in court, will be lost. If clear and unambiguous words indicate to a court that the party wanted the liquidated damages to be the entirety of their damages for an event such as delay, then that party will lose their entitlement to general damages. Regardless of actual losses, it will be capped.

As determined early last year in the Victorian tribunal case Leeda Projects Pty Ltd v Zeng, courts will assume that general damages are not excluded by a liquidated damages clause, but they can be persuaded otherwise. In one disastrous example in England, the parties had entered ‘£ nil’ in the liquidated damages clause for delay, and the court found that the surrounding circumstances showed that the parties intended to exclude all damages for delay when using this clause.

Liquidated damages vs. penalties

Understanding the difference between liquidated damages and penalties is vital for any contracting parties. This is because courts will enforce liquidated damages clauses, but they have also made it clear that they will not enforce a clause if it amounts to a penalty clause.

In the eyes of a court, a clause will be a penalty clause where the amount of fixed damages in the contract is not a genuine pre-estimate of loss or damage sustained by the non-defaulting party, or where it does not protect the legitimate commercial interests of the non-defaulting party. Rather, where a provision is a kind of punishment for non-observance of the contract, it will be a penalty.

It is not enough for parties to label a clause ‘liquidated damages’ in the contract, or to state that ‘the parties agree that this is not a penalty clause’. Courts will consider whether in substance it is a penalty.

The factors that determine whether a liquidated damages clause is a de facto penalty clause will vary from build to build and contract to contract. However, the courts have traditionally applied some key tests when considering whether a contractual provision goes beyond liquidated damages and is in fact a penalty.

The first key questions to consider are:

  • Is the amount provided for in the clause ‘extravagant and unconscionable’ when compared with the greatest possible loss that could possibly be shown to result from the particular breach of contract?
  • Does the breach consist solely of non-payment of money which results in a larger sum for damages being required?
  • Does the clause stipulate the same amount is to be paid for different breaches, even if the breaches vary in terms of seriousness?

If the answer to any of these questions is ‘yes’ then it is likely the clause will be a penalty and will not be enforceable.

What if actual loss can’t be quantified?

A clause may be a valid liquidated damages clause even if it is not possible to estimate in advance the actual or true loss that may be suffered. The main consideration is whether the liquidated sum is extravagant. Therefore, it is important to consider carefully the tests above when determining the size and scope of any liquidated damages clauses.


The difference between a reasonable liquidated damages clause and an unenforceable penalty clause can be a difficult line to draw, even when all parties to a contract enter into negotiations with the best of intentions.

Before entering into a contract or agreeing to a liquidated damages clause it is always advisable to seek legal advice to ensure that you understand the full ramifications of the agreement and to check that, if needed, the terms of the contract will be enforceable by you or the other party.

If you or someone you know wants more information or needs help or advice, please contact us on +61 2 9248 3450 or email