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Force Majuere & Frustration of Contract In Commercial Leases

Force majeure is a French term – it means “major or superior force.”  It is an unforeseeable event that is outside of the control of the parties. It is a type of contractual provision that you will find across contracts, including in many commercial lease agreements. The clause is included to let a party off-the-hook when something extraordinary happens. Something that makes it impossible to do the thing they thought they could do when they entered into the contract. The common thread is that of the unexpected. Something beyond regular human foresight and skill.

When reviewing your commercial lease agreement, you must look at the Force Majeure (“FM”) clause in the context of COVID-19 as it relates to your [in]ability to continue operating your business.  Thousands of commercial tenants are now confronted by huge cash flows issues with revenue ground to a halt and ongoing liabilities (including lease payments) that they are unable to fund. As a result, one of the options for these tenants may be to invoke the FM clause in their commercial lease agreement. 

It important to review the specific language of the FM clause in your commercial lease agreement. Some FM clauses say that such a scenario only applies if “performance of obligations under the contract becomes impossible.”  That means it is not physically possible for the party to do the thing that was set out to do when the contract was entered.   The impact of COVID-19 on your specific business is a key consideration to determine whether it makes continued operation impossible (i.e., schools, restaurants, and other non-essential business that are subject to mandatory government closure) or more difficult to perform but still possible to operate. Can the tenant and its employees still gain access to their premises to retrieve files and/or laptops in the event access to the building is restricted?

You must consider what types of events will trigger a FM based on the wording of the lease. Some contracts may be silent on this.  Others will be specific – naming specific events that constitute FM (e.g. flood, strike, fire, or ‘Act of G-d,’ etc.).  The unifying thread of an ‘Act of G-d’ is an uncontrollable event that was not foreseen at the time the contract was entered into.  When the contract was negotiated may be critical. For instance, some contracts may expressly stipulate “pandemics” in FM clauses. Especially those that were negotiated around the time of the SARS virus. 

The determination as to whether COVID-19 is considered an FM event is based on how that term is defined in your contract. 

In many cases, parties to a contract could reasonably argue that they could not foresee the pandemic at this scale occurring at the time the contract was entered into.   On the other hand, just because it is more economically difficult for the party to perform the agreement, the simple fact that the event has caused a constraint on profitability, it may not be enough to trigger the FM clause.

If it is Physically Possible To Continue To Operate My Business But It Will Be Extremely Costly – What Are My Choices?

Do I have to pay my contractual obligations or just pay damages for breach of contract?  There is a well-recognized ability in the case law that it may be more economical for a party to an agreement to cease performing an agreement and breach the contract, rather than continue performing and lose money – this is often referred to as an ‘efficient breach.’   The counter-party in the breach of contract can be made whole, whereas the breaching party will minimize its losses by ending the contract at that time.

A key consideration is if a party breaches a contract with another party – that may impact the counter-parties ability to perform its other contractual relationships, which could lead to a cascade of breached contracts with third-parties.  Those other parties could potentially bring a claim against the initial breaching party based on tort law principles.  

Whatever industry you operate in, your company must consider how they will continue their business in the face of COVID-19.  Parties should take into account commercial leasing considerations and review their leases to determine what rights and obligations they have in light of COVID-19.

What Happens If You Do Not Have an FM Clause in Your Contract? Frustration of Contract

You may be able to rely on the doctrine of frustration of contract. Frustration is the occurrence of an unforeseen event that causes a radical change in performance of contract. This radical change makes performance under existing circumstances impossible, impractical or frustrates the original purpose of the agreement. The onus would be on the party alleging frustration of the contract to prove these elements.

According to the Supreme Court case Naylor Group Inc. v Ellis-Don Construction Ltd., the doctrine is applied where, “a situation has arisen for which the parties made no provision in the contract and the performance of the contract becomes ‘a thing radically different from that which was undertaken by the contract.’ The result of a successful frustration claim is that the contract is deemed frustrated and all obligations are extinguished as of the date of the supervening event.

If you have any questions with respect to your commercial lease and your rights and obligations in the face of COVID-19, it is important that you speak with qualified legal counsel to discuss the same. 

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