5 March 2020
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Coronavirus issues are likely to affect every business and industry, and the hotel industry is looking at an immediate and out-sized impact. JMBM partner Mark Adams deals with these issues across all industries on an international basis, and he has a deep involvement and understanding of the hospitality industry’s unique contracts, issues, customs and practices. In the second of his series of articles regarding the coronavirus, Mark discusses the importance of jurisdiction and contract wording when considering force majeure as a defense.
Coronavirus COVID-19 force majeure:
Contract provisions and governing law are important
Force majeure provides an excuse for a party’s non-performance of its contractual obligations as a result of an extraordinary event or circumstance beyond the control of the parties, such as act of God, war, strike, riot, etc.
What law governs the contract? Common law or civil law principles?
Unless there is an express provision in the contract, force majeure does not exist as a standalone defense in common law jurisdictions such as the U.S. and the U.K. In civil law jurisdictions, such as France and Germany, however, force majeure is implied into every contract, unless the parties agree otherwise. In order to minimize unintended consequences, contracting parties in both jurisdictions include force majeure provisions in their agreements.
In common law jurisdictions, the general rule is strict liability for the breach of a contract. This reflects the principle of pacta sunt servanda (preserving the sanctity of the contract). But there are exceptions. Common law jurisdictions excuse performance when it is not practical and could only be done at excessive and unreasonable cost. In the U.S., the Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 261 (1981), states:
“Where, after a contract is made, a party’s performance is made impracticable without his fault by the occurrence of an event the non-occurrence of which was a basic assumption on which the contract was made, his duty to render that performance is discharged, unless the language or the circumstances indicate the contrary.”
In the U.K., the similar doctrine of “frustration of purpose” is likewise a defense to non-performance. Frustration of purpose occurs when an unforeseen event undermines a party’s principal purpose for entering into a contract such that the performance of the contract is radically different from performance of the contract that was originally contemplated by both parties. Whether under an “impracticable” or “frustration” jurisdiction, the standard for relief is a high one, and is subjective. That subjectivity can only be definitively resolved by litigation and judicial intervention.
Specify conditions short of “impracticable”
To avoid the uncertainty of such subjective standards, contracting parties in common law jurisdictions typically include force majeure provisions to specify events or circumstances that will excuse performance of contractual obligations by a party. Such specified force majeure events might not rise to the level of “impracticable” or “frustration.” By negotiating force majeure provisions, the parties can better allocate the consequences of non-performance as between themselves. For example, in a supply contract for the purchase of medical grade masks, if the manufacturer/seller is suddenly unable to timely deliver the masks to the buyer because of a trucking strike, the manufacturer could suffer the consequences of the substantially increased costs of delivering the masks by a private carrier. So long as the delivery costs are not prohibitively higher, the manufacturer will be liable for breach of contract if the manufacturer does not perform.
The doctrines of “impracticable” or “frustration” are of no avail in these circumstances. And even if they might be available, the application of them would have to be litigated. But if a properly worded force majeure provision is in the contract it could excuse performance in the event of trucking strikes, and the manufacturer would be off the hook. CONTINUE READING →