-Richa Saraf (firstname.lastname@example.org)
COVID- 19 has been declared as a pandemic by the World Heath Organisation, and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has issued an advisory on social distancing, w.r.t. mass gathering and has put travel restrictions to prevent spreading of COVID-19. On 19th February, 2020, vide an office memorandum O.M. No. 18/4/2020-PPD, the Government of India has clarified that the disruption of the supply chains due to spread of coronavirus in China or any other country should be considered as a case of natural calamity and “force majeure clause” may be invoked, wherever considered appropriate, following the due procedure.
In view of the current situation where COVID- 19 has a global impact, and is resulting in a continuous sharp decline in the market, it is important to understand the relevance of force majeure clauses, and the effect thereof.
Meaning Of Force Majeure:
The term has its origin from French, meaning “greater force”. Collins Dictionary defines “force majeure” as “irresistible force or compulsion such as will excuse a party from performing his or her part of a contract”
The term has been defined in Cambridge Dictionary as follows:
“an unexpected event such as a war, crime, or an earthquake which prevents someone from doing something that is written in a legal agreement”.
In Merriam Webster Dictionary, the term has been defined as “superior or irresistible force” and “an event or effect that cannot be reasonably anticipated or controlled”.
In light of COVID- 19, a pertinent question that may arise here is whether COVID- 19 shut down will be regarded as a force majeure event for all the agreements, providing a leeway to the parties claiming impossibility of performance? Further, whether such non-compliance of the terms of the agreement will neither be regarded as a “default committed by any party” nor a “breach of contract”? The general principle is that an event will be regarded as a force majeure event on fulfilment of the following conditions:
- An unexpected intervening event occurred: The event should be one which is beyond the control of either of the parties to the agreement, similar to an Act of God;
- The parties to the agreement assumed such an event would not occur: A party’s non-performance will not be excused where the event preventing performance was expected or was a foreseeable risk at the time of the execution of the agreement; and
- The unexpected event made contractual performance impossible or impracticable: For instance, can the issuer of debentures say that there is no default if the issuer is unable to redeem the debentures? Whether an event has made contractual performance impossible or impracticable has to be determined on a case-to-case basis. It is to be analysed whether the problem is so severe so as to deeply affect the party, and thereby creating an impossibility of performance. This has to be, however, relative to the counterparty so as to create an impossibility of performance.
- The parties have taken all such measures to perform the obligations under the agreement or atleast to mitigate the damage: It is required that a party seeking to invoke force majeure clause should follow the requirements set forth the agreement, i.e. to provide notice to the other party as soon as it became aware of the force majeure event, and should concretely demonstrate how the said situation has directly impacted the performance of obligations under the agreement.
To understand this further, let us discuss the precedents laid down in several cases.
Principles in Other Jurisdictions:
Prior to the decision in Taylor vs. Caldwell, (1861-73) All ER Rep 24, the law in England was extremely rigid. A contract had to be performed after its execution, notwithstanding the fact that owing to an unforeseen event, the contract becomes impossible of performance, which was not at the fault of either of the parties to the contract. This rigidity of the common law was loosened somewhat by the decision in Taylor (supra), wherein it was held that if some unforeseen event occurs during the performance of a contract which makes it impossible of performance, in the sense that the fundamental basis of the contract goes, it need not be further performed, as insisting upon such performance would be unjust.
In Gulf Oil Corp. v. FERC 706 F.2d 444 (1983), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit considered litigation stemming from the failure of the oil company to deliver contracted daily quantities of natural gas. The court held that Gulf- as the non- performing party- needed to demonstrate not only that the force majeure event was unforeseeable but also that the availability and delivery of the gas were affected by the occurrence of a force majeure event.
Illustrations: When Is An Event Not Considered As Force Majeure?
Inability to sell at a profit is not the contemplation of the law of a force majeure event excusing performance and a party is not entitled to declare a force majeure because the costs of contract compliance are higher than it would have liked or anticipated. In this regard, the following cases are relevant:
- In the case of Dorn v. Stanhope Steel, Inc., 534 A.2d 798, 586 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1987), it was observed as follows:
“Performance may be impracticable because extreme and unreasonable difficulty, expense, injury, or loss to one of the parties will be involved. A severe shortage of raw materials or of supplies due to war, embargo, local crop failure, unforeseen shutdown of major sources of supply, or the like, which either causes a marked increase in cost or prevents performance altogether may bring the case within the rule stated in this Section. Performance may also be impracticable because it will involve a risk of injury to person or to property, of one of the parties or of others, that is disproportionate to the ends to be attained by performance. However, “impracticability” means more than “impracticality.” A mere change in the degree of difficulty or expense due to such causes as increased wages, prices of raw materials, or costs of construction, unless well beyond the normal range, does not amount to impracticability since it is this sort of risk that a fixed-price contract is intended to cover.”
- In Aquila, Inc. v. C.W. Mining 545 F.3d 1258 (2008), Justice Neil Gorsuch authored an opinion for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, which excused a coal mining company’s deficient performance under a coal supply contract with a public utility only to the extent that partial force majeure, namely labor dispute, caused deficiency.
- In OWBR LLC v. Clear Channel Communications, Inc., 266 F. Supp. 2d 1214, it was observed- “To excuse a party’s performance under a force majeure clause ad infinitum when an act of terrorism affects the American populace would render contracts meaningless in the present age, where terrorism could conceivably threaten our nation for the foreseeable future”.
- In Transatlantic Financing Corp. v. U.S. 363 F.2d 312, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a finding that there was no commercial impracticability where one party sought to recover damages because its wheat shipment was forced to be re-routed due to the closing of the Suez Canal. The Court of Appeals held that because the contract was not rendered legally impossible and it could be presumed that the shipping party accepted “some degree of abnormal risk,” there was no basis for relief.
Some Landmark Rulings in India:
Deliberating on what is to be considered as a force majeure, in the seminal decision of Satyabrata Ghose v. Mugneeram Bangur & Co., 1954 SCR 310, the Hon’ble Apex Court had adverted to Section 56 of the Indian Contract Act. The Supreme Court held that the word “impossible” has not been used in the Section in the sense of physical or literal impossibility. To determine whether a force majeure event has occurred, it is not necessary that the performance of an act should literally become impossible, a mere impracticality of performance, from the point of view of the parties, and considering the object of the agreement, will also be covered. Where an untoward event or unanticipated change of circumstance upsets the very foundation upon which the parties entered their agreement, the same may be considered as “impossibility” to do as agreed.
Subsequently, in Naihati Jute Mills Ltd. v. Hyaliram Jagannath, 1968 (1) SCR 821, the Supreme Court also referred to the English law on frustration, and concluded that a contract is not frustrated merely because the circumstances in which it was made are altered. In general, the courts have no power to absolve a party from the performance of its part of the contract merely because its performance has become onerous on account of an unforeseen turn of events. Further, in Energy Watchdog v. CERC (2017) 14 SCC 80, it was observed as follows:
“37. It has also been held that applying the doctrine of frustration must always be within narrow limits. In an instructive English judgment namely, Tsakiroglou & Co. Ltd. v. Noblee Thorl GmbH, 1961 (2) All ER 179, despite the closure of the Suez canal, and despite the fact that the customary route for shipping the goods was only through the Suez canal, it was held that the contract of sale of groundnuts in that case was not frustrated, even though it would have to be performed by an alternative mode of performance which was much more expensive, namely, that the ship would now have to go around the Cape of Good Hope, which is three times the distance from Hamburg to Port Sudan. The freight for such journey was also double. Despite this, the House of Lords held that even though the contract had become more onerous to perform, it was not fundamentally altered. Where performance is otherwise possible, it is clear that a mere rise in freight price would not allow one of the parties to say that the contract was discharged by impossibility of performance.
38. This view of the law has been echoed in ‘Chitty on Contracts’, 31st edition. In paragraph 14-151 a rise in cost or expense has been stated not to frustrate a contract. Similarly, in ‘Treitel on Frustration and Force Majeure’, 3rd edition, the learned author has opined, at paragraph 12-034, that the cases provide many illustrations of the principle that a force majeure clause will not normally be construed to apply where the contract provides for an alternative mode of performance. It is clear that a more onerous method of performance by itself would not amount to a frustrating event. The same learned author also states that a mere rise in price rendering the contract more expensive to perform does not constitute frustration. (See paragraph 15-158)”
General Force Majeure Clauses in Agreements and the Impact Thereof:
While some of the agreements do have a force majeure clause, one question that may arise is whether the excuse of force majeure event be taken only if there is a specific clause in the agreement or event otherwise? Typically, in all the agreements, whether the promisor is under the obligation to promptly inform the promisee in case of occurrence of any event or incidence, any force majeure event or act of God such as earthquake, flood, tempest or typhoon, etc or other similar happenings, of which the promisor become aware, which is reasonably expected to adversely affect the promisor, or its ability to perform obligations under the agreement.
The terms of the agreement and the intent has to be understood to determine the effect of force majeure clause. In Phillips P.R. Core, Inc. v. Tradax Petroleum Ltd., 782 F.2d 314, 319 (2d Cir. 1985), it was observed that the basic purpose of force majeure clauses is in general to relieve a party from its contractual duties when its performance has been prevented by a force beyond its control or when the purpose of the contract has been frustrated.
The next question that may arise is whether every force majeure leads to frustration of the contract? For instance, if the agreement was hiring of a car on 24th March, the occurrence of COVID- 19 may just have the impact of altering the timing of performance. In some other cases, the event may only affect one part of the transaction. Therefore, the impact of the force majeure event cannot be generalised and shall vary depending on the nature of transaction.
Usually, occurrence of a force majeure event provides the promisee with a right to terminate the agreement, and take all necessary actions as it may deem fit. For instance, in case of lease, if the lessor considers that there is a risk to the equipment, the lessor may seek for repossession of the leased equipment.
Further, in case the force majeure event frustrates the very intent of the agreement, then the parties are under no obligation to perform the agreement. For instance, if the agreement (or performance thereof) itself becomes unlawful due to any government notification or change in law, which arises after execution of the agreement, then such agreements do not have to be performed at all. In such cases, if the agreement contains a force majeure or similar clause, Section 32 of the Indian Contract Act will be applicable. The said section stipulates that contingent contracts to do or not to do anything if an uncertain future event happens, cannot be enforced by law unless and until that event has happened; If the event becomes impossible, such contracts become void. Even if the agreement does not contain a specific provision to this effect then in such a case doctrine of frustration under Section 56 of the Indian Contract Act shall apply. The section provides that a contract to do an act which, after the contract is made, becomes impossible, or, by reason of some event which the promisor could not prevent, unlawful, becomes void when the act becomes impossible or unlawful.
Impact of COVID- 19 on Loan Transactions:
The Reserve Bank of India has, vide notification No. BP.BC.47/21.04.048/2019-20 dated 27th March, 2020, has announced that in respect of all term loans (including agricultural term loans, retail and crop loans), all commercial banks (including regional rural banks, small finance banks and local area banks), co-operative banks, all-India Financial Institutions, and NBFCs (including housing finance companies) are permitted to grant a moratorium of three months on payment of all instalments falling due between 1st March, 2020 and 31st May, 2020. Further, in respect of working capital facilities sanctioned in the form of cash credit/overdraft, the lending institutions have been permitted to defer the recovery of interest applied in respect of all such facilities during the period from 1st March, 2020 upto 31st May, 2020.
Detail discussion on the same has been done in our article “Moratorium on loans due to Covid-19 disruption”, which can be accessed from the link below:
Further, our article “RBI granted moratorium on term loans: Impact on securitisation and direct assignment transactions” can be accessed from the following link:
Further content related to Covid-19: http://vinodkothari.com/covid-19-incorporated-responses/