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Contracts are the backbone of business dealings, providing a framework for parties to define their rights, obligations, and expectations. However, even the most meticulously drafted contracts can be disrupted by unforeseeable events beyond the control of the parties involved. From natural disasters to global pandemics, these unforeseen circumstances can have a significant impact on contract performance, leading to disputes and legal challenges. In this blog post, we’ll explore the concept of force majeure, a legal doctrine that addresses unforeseeable circumstances in contracts, and how it can affect contractual obligations.

If your business relies on contracts to stay healthy and profitable, consider hiring a Houston corporate attorney. They will draft contracts containing clauses that take into consideration what will happen if unforeseen events make it impossible for the parties to meet their contractual obligations.

What Types of Unforeseen Circumstances Are There in Contracts?

Force majeure, a French term meaning “superior force,” refers to unforeseeable events or circumstances that prevent a party from fulfilling its contractual obligations. These events are typically beyond the control of the parties and could not have been reasonably anticipated at the time the contract was formed. Examples of force majeure events may include natural disasters, acts of terrorism, war, strikes, and government regulations. 

According to the American Bar Association, the pandemic caused many contracts to be disputed, but in some cases, there were simply delays or hindrances. Whether or not those contracts were voided caused many lawsuits to be filed and caused many attorneys to rethink and reword their force majeure clauses.

Key Elements of Force Majeure Clauses

  1. Inclusion in the Contract: Force majeure clauses are often included in contracts to address the possibility of unforeseeable events that could impact performance. These clauses define the types of events that constitute force majeure and specify the rights and obligations of the parties in the event of such occurrences.
  2. Enumerated Events: Force majeure clauses typically provide a list of specific events that qualify as force majeure, such as earthquakes, hurricanes, pandemics, and acts of God. Some clauses may also include catch-all provisions that encompass any other events beyond the parties’ control.
  3. Impact on Performance: When a force majeure event occurs, the affected party may be excused from performance or entitled to an extension of time to fulfill its obligations under the contract. In some cases, force majeure clauses may allow for termination of the contract if performance becomes impossible or commercially impracticable due to the event.
  4. Notice Requirements: Force majeure clauses often require the affected party to provide prompt notice to the other party of the event and its impact on performance. Failure to comply with notice requirements may result in the affected party forfeiting its rights under the force majeure clause.
  5. Mitigation of Damages: Parties affected by force majeure events are typically required to take reasonable steps to mitigate the impact on performance and minimize damages to the extent possible. Failure to mitigate damages could result in liability for the affected party.

The Impact of Force Majeure Clauses on Contract Execution

A force majeure clause is designed to alleviate liability for both parties and potentially nullify the contract should extreme events, beyond anyone’s control, prevent its fulfillment. Such clauses are vital in excusing parties from performing their obligations without facing breach of contract claims, thereby avoiding possible severe financial penalties.

Types of Events That May Trigger Force Majeure Clauses

Other than COVID-19 (or pandemics and/or epidemics in general) there are many kinds of unforeseen events that might trigger a Force Majeure clause, some examples are:

  • Natural Disasters: Events such as earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, wildfires, tornadoes, and other natural calamities are commonly included in force majeure clauses. These events are unpredictable and can cause widespread disruption, making it impossible or impracticable for parties to fulfill their contractual obligations.
  • Acts of God: This term encompasses extraordinary events that are beyond human control, such as severe weather phenomena, volcanic eruptions, and other natural occurrences. Acts of God are often cited in force majeure clauses to excuse performance when such events occur.
  • War, Terrorism, and Civil Unrest: Force majeure clauses may include events related to armed conflict, acts of terrorism, riots, civil unrest, and political instability. These events can disrupt normal business operations and make it unsafe or impossible for parties to fulfill their contractual duties.
  • Government Actions or Regulations: Events such as government-imposed lockdowns, curfews, embargoes, trade restrictions, or regulatory changes may trigger force majeure clauses. These actions can directly impact contractual performance by restricting access to resources, imposing travel restrictions, or altering the legal landscape in which the contract operates.
  • Labor Disputes: Strikes, lockouts, labor shortages, or other labor disputes may be included in force majeure clauses, particularly if they significantly impact the availability of labor or the ability of parties to perform under the contract.
  • Epidemics and Pandemics: Global health crises, such as epidemics or pandemics (e.g., the COVID-19 pandemic), are increasingly being included in force majeure clauses. These events can lead to widespread illness, quarantine measures, travel restrictions, supply chain disruptions, and other challenges that affect contractual performance.
  • Utility Failures: Events such as power outages, telecommunications failures, or disruptions to essential utilities may trigger force majeure clauses, particularly if they render performance under the contract impossible or impracticable.
  • Other Unforeseen Circumstances: Force majeure clauses may also include catch-all provisions that encompass any other unforeseen events or circumstances beyond the control of the parties that make it impossible or impracticable to perform under the contract.

While Texas law acknowledges force majeure clauses, not all states do, and the definition of what constitutes such an event can be quite restrictive.

Role of a Corporate Attorney in Addressing Unforeseen Circumstances 

Corporate attorneys play an essential role in crafting contracts that anticipate and mitigate the risks associated with unforeseen events. Consider the scenario where the cost of materials, like teak for flooring, skyrockets unexpectedly due to global shortages. Should the increased costs be passed to the consumer, or absorbed by the contractor? These are the types of complex questions that can lead to litigation and are best navigated with legal expertise.

Contact Our Houston Business Law Attorney

To protect your business against the unpredictable, contracting with foresight and legal acumen is crucial. Capstone Legal Strategies has experience in securing your business’s future by preparing contracts that stand up to unpredictable events and ensuring that your interests are safeguarded in any circumstance. Contact us today to ensure your contracts are as resilient as your business. 

This is not intended to be legal advice. Please consult an attorney.