Can You Go to Jail for Breach of Contract?

While not commonly used, an 1854 Washington statute does allow for the arrest of persons who have breached a contract.3 min read

Can you go to jail for breach of contract? Not likely. While not commonly used, an 1854 Washington statute does allow for the arrest of persons who have breached a contract, it is more common for the party filing the complaint to request relief, meaning the party who breached the contract will cease and desist from causing any additional harm.

Legally speaking, breach of contract is not seen as a crime or even a tort. Additionally, punitive damages are not allowed by most states in contract law when a breach of contract occurs. Making the non-breaching party whole is the only remedy. Jurisdictions that do allow for punitive damages are rare and must be in cases where the punitive damages are against exploitive offenders. And, punitive damages are not guaranteed even in cases where the breach was conducted for malicious and financially destructive reasons.

Washington's Ne Exaet Statute, RCW 7.44

In the rare instance the Washington statute is used, it is not for the arrest and bail of a defendant. Instead, it is a way to prevent the defendant from leaving. Ne exeat means "that he not depart." To use the statute, the plaintiff must apply for a writ. The writ, accompanied by an affidavit, must show that:

  • It is believed the defendant plans on leaving the state imminently without completing or making alternate plans to complete the contract terms.
  • It is believed the defendant plans on taking property that will be used to defraud the plaintiff.

The statute is not written for the purpose to arrest the defendant. It is instead used as a way for a sheriff to obtain a bond to guarantee the defendant will appear in court at a future date. If the defendant fails to appear or comply, they are then subject to arrest.

While this statute does exist, there is only one divorce case on record that used ne exeat writ in 1908. It is mentioned in conjunction with the Washington Family and Community Property Law in regards to marital assets and child support. However, other legal actions that are more common are used instead including restraining orders, prejudgment attachment, and preliminary injunctions. In the case of breach, while there may be a desire to have the offender arrested, there are better, more fitting, legal actions to use.

Provisions of California Civil Code Sections 3300 - 3322

In California, the California Civil Code sections 3300 - 3322 include provisions specifically to detail a range of damages when a breach of contract occurs. Some of the sections include:

  • Section 3000 - For breach of contract, the compensation will match the approximate amount of damages incurred, unless otherwise directed in the civil code.
  • Section 3302 - Damages cannot be awarded if the breach cannot be clearly defined in terms of loss.