Sunday, July 31, 2011

In a case of first impression, a commercial arbitration panel of the AAA validates provisions for the computation of damages in a distribution agreement governed by Law 75

In a watershed ruling, a commercial arbitration panel of the American Arbitration Association has decided that sophisticated corporations may pre-determine the methodology for computing actual damages in the event of a future termination of the business relationship without violating Law 75.

There, a renowned worldwide producer of liquor entered into a distribution agreement with a Puerto Rico distributor. The brands and products that were subject to the agreement were famous, had an established goodwill in the Puerto Rico market, and produced significant annual revenues to the previous distributor, an entity affiliated to the producer. The agreement did not require the new distributor to pay a franchise fee, make any capital investments, or provide any consideration in exchange for the exclusive distribution rights.

The parties negotiated at arms-length with the advice of counsel and agreed on the formula to compute damages in the event of a termination without just cause. Essentially, the agreement established the annual distribution value of the exclusive distribution rights owned by the producer that would be conditionally granted to the distributor. The distribution value was based on actual historical data of revenues generated by sales of the products in the Puerto Rico market and an estimate of the new distributor’s direct costs. If the measure of actual damages under Law 75 was less than the distribution value, the distributor would recover zero damages in the event of an unjustified termination. Under the agreement, the distributor could only recover the excess profits generated by its efforts to the extent that those exceeded the distribution value.

The distributor argued that the damages provisions infringed Law 75 as a waiver of rights, but a majority of the panel disagreed. The Panel recognized that the Puerto Rico distributor cannot recover for the franchisor’s goodwill and value of its trademarks. Further, the measure for computing damages did not violate Law 75 because there is no prohibition from valuing the manufacturer’s goodwill (which the distributor did not create or contribute) and setting off that value from the measure of actual damages under Law 75. Damages under Law 75 are not automatic or mandatory, ruled the panel in favor of the producer.

This decision may have a significant impact in the way that distribution agreements are negotiated and executed, especially for famous brands that have an established clientele and goodwill in the Puerto Rico market.

Author’s note: The undersigned is lead counsel for the producer in the arbitration proceedings, with Rosalie Irizarry participating as trial counsel and Natalia Morales for research and motion practice.