Force majeure clauses and COVID-19

Gavel to Gavel appears in The Journal Record. This column was originally published in The Journal Record on September 17, 2020.


By Phillips Murrah Attorney Kendra M. Norman

Kendra Norman Web

Kendra M. Norman represents individuals and businesses in a broad range of transactional matters.

Force majeure clauses are common clauses in contracts that allocate risk between parties and release a party from liability or obligations during unforeseeable or unpredictable events that are out of the party’s reasonable control.

These events can generally be referred to as acts of God or can be specifically listed in the agreement, often including events like war, strikes, riots or government actions. However, it should be noted that there is not a specific set of events that come under the definition of “acts of God” – this often depends on the context of the contract and the jurisdiction.

Force majeure clauses are ever-evolving and the language used has been influenced by events around us. Before 9/11, most force majeure clauses didn’t include terrorism as a force majeure event. This spurred litigation between parties regarding whether terrorism was an act of God that should be covered by the force majeure clause to excuse performance. Now, terrorism and terrorist attacks are often specifically set forth in force majeure clauses.

The conversation about force majeure clauses now revolves around whether the COVID-19 pandemic qualifies as an act of God and how this will affect contracts. As always, this depends on the type of contract, the language set forth in the contract, the context of the contract, the intent of the parties, and the governing law of the contract. Therefore, this determination is highly fact-specific and depends on several factors.

It is possible that COVID-19 could be considered an act of God in some contracts, or it could fall under force majeure clauses that contain specific references to disasters, national emergencies, government regulations or generally acts beyond the control of the parties. With the extraordinary potential consequences from COVID-19 yet to be determined, businesses should begin ascertaining whether their material contracts contain force majeure provisions and how such provisions may affect their rights and responsibilities going forward. However, given the widespread impact of COVID-19, it is possible that parties may be more likely to negotiate amendments to agreements that have been impacted by COVID-19 rather than forcing parties to rely on and litigate force majeure clauses.

Nevertheless, going forward, those entering into contracts should consider whether adding more specific terms such as epidemic, pandemic or infectious disease as force majeure events will be advantageous for them in the future.

Kendra Norman is an attorney with the law firm of Phillips Murrah.


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