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International Sales Contracts - COVID-19 Pandemic and Force Majeure

Q: What is force majeure in the context of a contract?

A: Generally speaking, a force majeure clause is a contract provision that relieves a party from performing its contractual obligations when certain circumstances beyond its control arise, making performance inadvisable, commercially impracticable, illegal, or impossible.

Q: If a party enters into an international commercial contract and the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented or delayed performance by such party, is such party excused from performing?

A: It depends. Does the contract for sale of goods stipulate that the United Nations Convention on Contracts for the International Sale of Goods (“CISG”) is the determinative governing law, or, by default the CISG governs?

The CISG generally applies if the parties to a contract are from different signatory countries (unless the parties expressly waive its applicability), or when private international law provisions default to the CISG. The United States is a signatory country to the CISG.  Specifically, CISG Article 79 provides that “[a] party is not liable for a failure to perform any of his obligations if he proves that the failure was due to an impediment beyond his control and that he could not reasonably be expected to have taken the impediment into account at the time of the conclusion of the contract or to have avoided or overcome it, or its consequences.” The treatment of impediment under the CISG is different from the treatment under common law (see below). Generally, four conditions must be satisfied in order for a party to assert the force majeure protection under the CISG. First, the impediment must be beyond the party’s control. Secondly, the impediment is unforeseeable at the time the contract was signed (thus, a party probably would not prevail in court if it enters into a contract today and claims that it cannot perform under the contract due to the COVID-19 pandemic). Thirdly, the impediment and its consequences could not be reasonably avoided or overcome. Lastly, the non-performance of the party is the result of the impediment.  

Q: What if the contract does not contain an express force majeure clause or the CISG does not apply to the contract?

A: Consider other options under U.S. law to excuse non-performance.

Under Article 2 of the Uniform Commercial Code (“UCC”) (Section 2-615), a seller may be excused from delay or non-delivery of the goods if performance “has been made impracticable” by either (i) the occurrence of an event “the nonoccurrence of which was a basic assumption on which the contract was made” or (ii) good faith compliance with foreign or domestic government regulation. Can the COVID-19 pandemic and/or compliance with the governmental health orders be used to excuse performance under the UCC? Perhaps, but analysis should be done on a case by case basis.

The common law doctrines of “frustration” and “impossibility” may be invoked, but they have higher thresholds to overcome. Additionally, states in the U.S. apply different treatments of these concepts.

Some jurisdictions focus on whether the impossibility of performance was foreseeable at the time the contract was entered. Additionally, the contract must be consummated based on the assumption that the event (which rendered performance impossible) would not occur. Some states expand the impossibility defense to include the doctrine of impracticability (see the UCC discussion above).

The doctrine of “frustration of purpose” generally provides where the breaching party finds that the purposes for which it bargained have been frustrated to the extent that the breaching party is not receiving the benefit of the bargain for which it contracted; i.e., the frustration destroyed the purpose of the contract. Some jurisdictions also require that an event resulting in such frustration of purpose is unforeseeable and beyond the parties’ control.

If you have any questions about force majeure, please contact Robert Q. Lee at rqlee@bmdpl.com or 407.232.6881.

BMD Appellate Win Clarifies Waiver of Contractual Right to Arbitrate

Brennan, Manna & Diamond, LLC attorneys David M. Scott, Lucas K. Palmer, and Krista D. Warren prevailed before the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit regarding if/when a party waives a contractual right to arbitrate. Borror Property Management, LLC v. Oro Karric North, LLC, No. 20-3146 (the “Decision”).

Relief for Ohio Under the Federal American Rescue Plan Act

On March 11, 2021, President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act (the “Act”) — a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package — a significant portion of which will be directed to the State of Ohio to support economic recovery, as outlined below.

Cleveland Manufacturer Violated OFAC Sanctions By Allowing Shipments To Iran - Know Your Customer and Know Their Customer

UniControl, Inc., a Cleveland, Ohio manufacturer of process controls, airflow pressure switches, boiler controls and other instruments, agreed to pay the Office of Foreign Assets Control “OFAC,” the financial enforcement agency of the U.S. Treasury Department, $216,464 to settle its liabilities for violations of the Iran Sanctions Program. OFAC stated that “this enforcement action highlights the importance of identifying and assessing multiple warning signs that indicate a foreign trade partner may be re-exporting goods to a sanctioned jurisdiction.”

Ohio Breach of Contract Statute of Limitations Shortened to 6 Years

On March 16, 2021, Governor DeWine signed into law S.B. 13 which shortens Ohio’s statute of limitations for filing lawsuits based on breach of contract. A statute of limitation is the time period within which a party must file a lawsuit before its claim expires as a matter of law.

Chinese Product Tariff Challenge Causes Flurry of Importer Lawsuits

A lawsuit filed late in 2020 at the U.S. Court of International Trade (“CIT”) challenging the U.S. Trade Representative’s (USTR) implementation of Section 301 “List 3” and “List 4” duties on products from China, HMTX Industries LLC et al. v. United States (Court No. 20-00177), has resulted in the filing of thousands of additional lawsuits brought by other affected importers. There are now 3,700+ companies added to the list, including Ford, Home Depot, Target, Tesla, and Walgreens, along with many other smaller importers.