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The COVID-19 Pandemic and Commercial Contracts

The author of this post is Franz Kaps, Lawyer at DL Piper, Frankfurt am Main.


To stop the spread of the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic governments closed ports and “non-essential businesses”, restricted travel and imposed “lockdowns” or “stay-at-home” orders. In cases where the COVID-19 pandemic or government measures disrupt commercial contracts, it is necessary to carefully analyze the state of affairs to determine the appropriate remedy. A considerable number of articles have already been written on contracts affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and now it is time to summarize the legal situation for commercial contracts in the most important jurisdictions in a nutshell. This post therefore presents remedies for commercial contracts affected by COVID-19, under the laws of the countries whose systems are most commonly chosen to be applied to commercial contracts, and the CISG.

UK, Hong Kong, Singapore

Force Majeure

Force majeure is principally a matter of contract law in the common law jurisdictions England, Hong Kong and Singapore. Whether a force majeure clause is applicable in a particular situation and its consequences depends primarily on the wording of the force majeure clause. A clause modelled, for example, on the 2020 ICC force majeure clause (long form), presumes that an epidemic is a force majeure event; pandemics such as COVID-19 are not expressly mentioned, therefore it will be for the arbitral tribunals and courts to interpret the term “epidemic” under no. 3 (e) ICC to encompass pandemics.

The burden of proof is on the party invoking the force majeure clause as defense. Such a party has to demonstrate that a force majeure event occurred and that it had the stipulated effect on the contractual performance. If a party invokes a force majeure clause in a commercial contract, it releases the party from its contractual obligations when circumstances beyond its control have prevented, hindered or delayed its performance.

In case the COVID-19 pandemic falls within the scope of the force majeure clause, parties should carefully examine whether there are other relevant contractual terms affecting the application of the clause – in particular, whether there are any requirements to notify the other party before invoking the clause.

Frustration

Besides force majeure clauses, the main common law doctrine with potential relevance to the discharge of obligations in the light of unforeseen events – like the COVID-19 pandemic – is frustration. According to it, a contract may be discharged upon the occurrence of an unforeseeable event that either renders the contractual obligation impossible or radically changes the basis upon which the contract was reached. However, it should be noted that the doctrine of frustration has a very limited scope.

Germany

Impossibility

Pursuant to Section 275 German Civil Code (BGB) a party is not required to perform its obligations to the extent that performance is impossible. Section 275 German Civil Code applies not only if performance of the obligation is technically or legally impossible, but also in cases where performance is still technically and legally possible, but would require expenses and efforts which, considering the subject matter of the obligation and the requirements of good faith, would be grossly disproportionate to the creditor’s interest of performance. In addition, Section 275 German Civil Code governs temporary impediments, i. e. a claim for performance is excluded as long as performance is impossible. However, German courts respect the legal principle pacta sunt servanda and hence apply Section 275 German Civil Code narrowly, in order not to undermine the agreed contractual obligations.

Frustration of Purpose

The doctrine of “frustration of purpose” (German Störung der Geschäftsgrundlage) can be invoked in cases affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Frustration of purpose under Section 313 German Civil Code will apply where the balance between performance and counter-performance of a contract is significantly changed in a way that was not foreseeable by the parties when the contract was concluded. Such a “frustrated contract” entitles the disadvantaged party to request the amendment of the contract. If an amendment of the contract is not possible or unreasonable, the disadvantaged party may rescind or terminate the contract. According to case law the principle of “contractual loyalty” requires a strict interpretation of Section 313 German Civil Code.

France

Force Majeure

Article 1218 French Civil Code addresses the concept of force majeure. According to its Article 1218 , the debtor’s performance is prevented by a force majeure event if three cumulative criteria are met:

  1. The event must be beyond the control of the debtor;
  2. It must be an event which could not reasonably have been foreseen at the time of the conclusion of the contract; and
  3. The effects of the event could not be avoided by appropriate measures.

The legal consequence of Article 1218 French Civil Code is that if performance of the obligation is temporarily prevented, it is suspended unless the delay justifies termination of the contract. In the event of permanent prevention, the contract is terminated by operation of law and the parties are discharged from their obligations.

Hardship

The recently introduced Article 1195 French Civil Code requires renegotiation of a contract if circumstances which were unforeseeable at the time of conclusion of the contract render performance excessively onerous for a party which had not accepted to bear that risk. If renegotiations fail, the parties may agree to terminate the contract, or request a court to revise or terminate the contract.

Switzerland

Swiss law has no statutory provision for force majeure events. In the absence of a force majeure clause in a contract, the applicable legal regime depends on whether the performance of the contract is impossible.

Pursuant to Article 119, 62 Swiss Code of Obligations, the impossibility to perform a contract – due to circumstances not attributable to the debtor – releases both parties from their obligations to perform and leads to the unwinding of the contract according to the rules of unjust enrichment.

In case the impossibility to perform the obligation lasts only for a limited time, the default provisions of Article 107 to 109 Swiss Code of Obligations apply. They provide that if one party is in default, the other party may set an appropriate time limit for the performance. If no performance is rendered during such a time limit, the other party may terminate the contract.

When the performance of a contract is not entirely impossible, but has become extremely onerous, a party may rely on the legal doctrine clausula rebus sic stantibus. It must be a situation which is not only extremely onerous but was also unforeseeable when the contract was concluded. In such circumstances, the parties may agree to amend or terminate the contract. Should one party insist that the contract remains unchanged, the other party may refer the matter before a court. If the requirement of clausula rebus sic stantibus are fulfilled, the court may order an amendment or the termination of the contract.

United States

U.S. contract law is ordinarily a matter of state law. I will focus on New York law, as it is the most commonly chosen by commercial parties to govern their contracts.

Contractual Force Majeure Clauses

Force majeure clauses are contractual provisions that may excuse a party’s non-performance when circumstances beyond the control of a party prevent performance. New York courts have held that force majeure clauses are to be interpreted in a narrow sense and that performance under a contract is ordinarily excused only if the event preventing performance is explicitly mentioned in the force majeure clause.

Subsidiary Solutions

In the absence of a force majeure clause, the common law doctrines of impossibility, impracticability and “frustration of purpose” may excuse performance.

The doctrine of impossibility excuses a party’s performance only when the destruction of the subject matter of the contract or the means of performance makes performance objectively impossible. The impossibility must be produced by an unanticipated event that could not have been foreseen or guarded against in the contract. Impossibility is therefore a narrow legal doctrine.

The doctrine of impracticability is similar to the doctrine of impossibility, but it is more flexible in its application. According to the doctrine of impracticability, a failure to perform contractual obligations is excused, if a party’s performance is made impracticable without its fault by the occurrence of an event the non-occurrence of which was a basic assumption on which the contract was made. Courts have generally applied the doctrine of impracticability conservatively.

Frustration of purpose is a common law doctrine that excuses a party’s performance under a contract when an unforeseen event renders the contract “virtually worthless” to the affected party. Although a literal performance under the contract is still technically possible, the frustrated purpose must be so completely the basis of the contract that, as both parties understood, without it, the transaction would have made little sense. The threshold of the doctrine of frustration of purpose is high, because performance of the contract must be economically impossible.

United Nations Convention on Contracts for the International Sale of Goods (CISG)

The CISG is applicable to contracts for the sale of goods between parties who have their place of business in different states, if these states are contracting states or if the rules of private international law lead to the application of the law of a contracting state and the CISG was not expressly excluded in the contract.

Strict Liability

Contracts for the supply of goods under the CISG are governed by the strict liability of the debtor. It is therefore irrelevant for the liability of the debtor whether they are responsible for the improper performance or the non-performance of their contractual obligation.

Exemption of Liability

In order to mitigate the strict liability of the debtor, Article 79 CISG provides for an exemption from the debtor’s liability if the failure to perform any of their obligations is due to an impediment beyond their control. It is additionally required that they could not reasonably be expected to have taken the impediment into account at the time of conclusion of the contract or to have avoided or overcome the impediment or its consequences. Article 79 CISG is advantageous to the seller. If the non-performance of an obligation to deliver is based on a force majeure event, the seller is released from the obligation to perform the contract for the period of the impediment. Also, the seller is not obliged to pay damages, because the performance is prevented by the force majeure event. However, pursuant to Article 79 para. 4 CISG the seller must inform the buyer of the impediment and its effects on their ability to perform within a reasonable period of time after they have or should have become aware of the impediment. Otherwise, they are liable for damages resulting from such non-receipt. The burden of proof that a contractual obligation was not performed or was delayed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic lies with the debtor.

International practice accepts epidemics as being beyond the debtor’s typical sphere of control. Consequently, the COVID-19 pandemic could constitute a minore ad maius an impediment beyond control according to Article 79 CISG. Whether the COVID-19 virus exempts debtors from their obligation to perform the commercial contract depends on the individual case, since it requires a causal link between the impediment and non-performance.

Takeaway

The impact the COVID-19 pandemic will have on the parties’ commercial contracts depends primary on the wording of their force majeure clause. In case of a force majeure event, the arbitral tribunals and the courts grant the terms of a commercial contract precedence over the applicable law. If a commercial contract does not contain a force majeure clause, or if does not cover pandemics, the applicable laws determine the available remedies. The remedies and requirements under the applicable law for commercial contracts affected by the COVID-19 pandemic differ. National laws have in common that legal doctrines which amend or terminate contractual agreements are narrowly construed. The underlying consideration is that arbitral tribunals and courts are only exceptionally authorized to “rewrite” the contractual obligations of the parties. It is therefore decisive whether the contractual provisions comprise a force majeure clause covering the COVID-19 pandemic. Against this backdrop parties should commercial evaluate – based on the facts of each case – their options to invoke a force majeure defense or to perform, amend, or terminate their commercial contracts.

In light of the high thresholds for a force majeure defense under the applicable law, it is essential to ensure legal certainty by including a force majeure clause in commercial contracts which clearly encompasses epidemics and pandemics. In particular, the party that would be affected by an epidemic or pandemic in the performance of its contractual obligations should assure that such events are expressly referred to in their force majeure clause, to ensure a balanced distribution of risks. Whether the situation is one of an epidemic or a pandemic should be determine by an objective criterion: a declaration by the World Health Organization would be useful to decide when the events under examination trigger the force majeure consequences.

Good starting point for future “tailor-made” force majeure clauses in commercial contracts is the balanced 2020 ICC force majeure proposal. Moreover, as in our globalized world, the next epidemic or pandemic will spread sooner or later, a lege artis force majeure clause must cover epidemics and pandemics.

1 comment on “The COVID-19 Pandemic and Commercial Contracts

  1. Many thanks for the useful overview. One is left wondering whether there is already case law applying these legal rules to COVID-19.

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