Why do Plaintiffs Mitigate Damages?

Mary McMahon

In the US, plaintiffs are legally obligated to mitigate damages when they sue for damages. While people are legally entitled to sue for damages when they have been injured by others, they are expected to take reasonable precautions to prevent the damages from increasing. This doctrine in law is also known as the law of avoidable consequences. If a court determines that damages could have been avoided if the plaintiff had undertaken a reasonable action, the total award of damages may be reduced.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

In a simple example of a situation in which someone may sue for damages, a landlord can sue a tenant who breaks a lease. However, the landlord is required to take steps to mitigate the damages, such as finding a new tenant for the housing unit as soon as the landlord becomes aware that the lease has been broken. For example, if a tenant breaks a 12 month lease three months in and the landlord takes no action to find a new tenant, a court will not award a full nine months of rent to the landlord, under the argument that the landlord did not take steps to mitigate the damages.

The obligation to mitigate damages applies in many different types of cases. As a general rule, if a reasonable and logical action could have been taken and it was not and damages result, the defendant will not be held liable for those damages. This is true even if the damages are related to the original injury caused by the defendant. For example, if someone breaks a leg in a car accident, she or he could be awarded damages if the accident is deemed the fault of another driver. However, if this person failed to care for the broken leg in a reasonable manner and it become infected, the other driver would not be liable for this.

The logic behind the requirement to mitigate damages is that people must be provided with an incentive to take due care after they have been injured, to avoid a situation in which someone permits damages to escalate and attempts to recover all of those damages from a defendant. In another example of how the mitigation of damages might work, a homeowner can sue a contractor for breach of contract if a contractor does not finish a home, but the homeowner is also expected to find a new contractor to complete the job in a timely fashion. The homeowner could not sue for something like damage caused by a missing roof or compensation for rent paid to stay in an apartment while the home was unfinished if a new contractor had not been hired.

People who fail to mitigate damages may be deemed to have acted in bad faith, and this can complicate their case in court.

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