By: Arend J. Abel, Attorney
With much of the nation shut down during the Covid-19 pandemic, many business contracts may not be performed. One of the questions that arises from that circumstance is whether non-performance will be considered a breach of contract, subjecting the non-performing party to an action for damages. There are three areas to consider in analyzing that question: 1) Force Majeure; 2) Impossibilitiy; and 3) Impracticability. Impracticability is confined to contracts for the sale of goods governed by the Uniform Commercial Code
Force Majeure, a French term meaning “superior force,” is a doctrine that excuses contractual performance made impossible by events listed in a contractual force majeure clause. As the Indiana Court of Appeals has observed “the scope and effect of a force majeure clause depends on the specific contract language, and not on any traditional definition of the term. Specialty Foods of Indiana, Inc. v. City of South Bend, 997 N.E.2d 23, 27 (Ind. Ct. App. 2013). A typical force majeure clause may look something like the following:
If a party cannot perform the obligations of this agreement due to an act of God, legal prohibition, fire, flood, natural disasters, military operations, or any other circumstance not within the control of the party, then the party is excused from performing such obligations.
The key question to ask in considering whether a force majeure clause excused a party’s performance is whether the event causing the non-performance is one of the events listed in the clause. If the language does not specifically include diseases or epidemics, a court may or may not find that general language describing “other circumstances not within the control of the party” covers the event. The Court of Appeals decision in Specialty Foods suggests that the particular clause set out above would cover such an event. However, even slight changes in language can affect the result. For example, a clause that excuse a party from performing for “reasons outside the party’s control such as an act of God, legal prohibition, fire, flood, natural disasters or military operations” might not cover CoVid-19 because the “such as” language might be interpreted to require the unlisted events to be similar in kind to those listed. See Kel Kim Corp. v. Central Markets, Inc., 70 N.Y.2d 900, 902, 519 N.E.2d 295, 296 n.* (1987) (language that “other similar causes beyond the control of such party” did not cover an inability to perform due to an inability to obtain insurance coverage).
Under Indiana law, as well as the law of most States, impossibility of performance excuses contractual performance, even in the absence of a force majeure clause. Wagler v. West Boggs Sewer District, 980 N.E.2d 363, 378 (Ind. Ct. App. 2012). However, the party claiming the defense must show that performance is “not merely difficult or relatively impossible, but absolutely impossible, owing to the act of God, the act of the law, or the loss or destruction of the subject-matter of the contract.” Id. (quoting Ross Clinic, Inc. v. Tabion, 419 N.E.2d 219, 223 (Ind.Ct.App.1981), which in turn quoted Krause v. Bd. of Trustees of Sch. Town of Crothersville, 162 Ind. 278, 283–284, 70 N.E. 264, 265 (1904)).
This may be difficult to meet in the case of Covid-19, though perhaps a business ordered to close by the authorities could meet the requirements, depending on the specific contract involved.
The Indiana Court of Appeals has considered whether an epidemic excuses contractual performance on two occasions. Gregg School Township v. Hinshaw, 76 Ind. App. 503, 132 N.E. 586, 587 (1921); Gear v. Gray, 10 Ind. App. 428, 37 N.E. 1059 (1894). In Gregg, the Court held that the fact that a school was ordered closed due to the 1918 flu pandemic meant that the School board did not have to pay teachers during the time the school was closed. In Gear, the Court reached the opposite conclusion when a school was closed due to a local diptheria epidemic. Explaining the different results, the Court in Gregg noted that in Gear, the local health authorities who ordered the school closed did not have express statutory authority to close the schools. In Gregg, the Court noted, there was such authority, and the contract had to be read as incorporating such authority, which rendered performance of the contract impossible.
It is unclear how Gregg will affect contracts of businesses that have been shut down in the latest pandemic. If the contract is one that literally cannot be performed when the business is shut down (such as a contract for an entertainer to appear at a venue), then most likely a court would excuse performance on grounds of impossibility. However, contracts by which a business purchases goods and services may be technically possible to perform, even if pointless. Courts may hold that performance is not excused in such cases.
Where contracts are for the sale of goods, the impracticability provisions of the Uniform Commercial Code could come into play. Section 2-615(a) of the U.C.C. provides:
Delay in delivery or non-delivery in whole or in part by a seller who complies with paragraphs (b) and (c) is not a breach of his duty under a contract for sale if performance as agreed has been made impracticable by the occurrence of a contingency the non-occurrence of which was a basic assumption on which the contract was made or by compliance in good faith with any applicable foreign or domestic governmental regulation or order whether or not it later proves to be invalid.
Significantly, the provision excuses a failure to deliver goods by a seller but offers no relief to buyers. In addition, to be excused from performance, the seller must comply with paragraphs (b) and (c) of the statute. If the situation only partially affects the seller’s ability to deliver goods, paragraph (b) requires the seller to allocate production and deliveries among customers in a manner that is “fair and reasonable.” Paragraph (c) requires the seller to provide the buyer with notice that there will be a non-delivery or delay, and if an allocation is required under paragraph (b) what the buyer’s allocation will be.
Impracticability is a lesser standard than impossibility, so sellers may have the ability to avoid contracts that become burdensome to perform, though not strictly impossible.
Regardless of whether Force Majeure, impossibility, or impracticability is invoked, the result will depend on particular facts and circumstances affecting contract performance. The issues will also likely depend on contractual language that covers, or can be read to cover, the specific events in question. I have represented businesses in a variety of litigation for over 30 years. If you are in a contract dispute as a result of this pandemic, contact me to discuss how I can help your business and protect your rights.