Earlier this month a California appellate court affirmed a lower court ruling invalidating early termination fees in cell phone service contracts. The affirmance stressed different reasoning than the lower court (which I discussed here). To the appellate court, Sprint’s ETFs were invalid because it set them without regard for their relation to the company’s actual damages; the trial court rested its ruling in part on how the fees were vastly lower than Sprint’s actual damages.
In a dozen lawsuits nationwide, champions of cell phone customers argued that ETFs penalize them by trapping them with a single provider. Most of the lawsuits settled before final resolution and few judicial opinions addressed the merits. The Sprint case is an exception. Both sides agreed that Sprint’s damages would be difficult to determine with reasonable certainty, meeting prong one of the traditional test for the validity of liquidated damages clauses.
Proponents of liquidated damages clauses, especially in consumer contracts, must show that they made a reasonable endeavor to set them with some relation to actual damages, however difficult they are to fix. Inquiry focuses on both what the party intended and the effects. In Sprint’s case, it couldn’t point to any intention to relate the ETFs to its losses. Rather, the entire ETF program was created and implemented by the company’s marketing department as a way to keep customers. Though Sprint may not have intended to set fees exceeding losses, as it contended, that argument gained it nothing because it showed no intention whatsoever concerning the relationship between the ETFs and its losses.