The Coronavirus sheds new light on an overlooked paragraph: The Force Majeure Provision

On January 30, 2020, the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency in response to the rapid spread of novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV).

Since then, it seemed to slowly make its way to the United States–but, then, once it arrived, it hit us rapidly and in ways that have unexpectedly changed how we conduct our personal and professional lives.

And, yes, I say this as someone who was scheduled to depart tomorrow on a Disney Cruise. We (obviously) cancelled our trip, and, in the past week, I’ve seen a nearly nationwide cancellation of events, with unimaginable impact on businesses and employees.

So, what if you’re thinking about cancelling an event? Where do you start your analysis? Well, closely review your written agreement for the terms and conditions related to cancellation.

Is there a “force majeure” provision? Those provisions account for an unforeseen, unavoidable, and uncontrollable circumstance that prevents performance by one party to a contract and, more importantly, “excuses” that party for non-performance. The circumstances are intended to be so extraordinary that they are sometimes referred to as an “Act of God” provision.

The first time many of us dealt with these issues were related to September 11, 2001, and most modern contracts reflect this changed world-view (and the acknowledgement that something short of a natural catastrophe can trigger the defense).

Force majeure provisions are valid and enforceable under Tennessee law. The question frequently becomes a matter of contractual interpretation: Is the [event that occurred] truly a force majeure that prevents performance/excuses non-performance?

This is where the lawyers make their money, and it comes down to how clear and detailed the contract’s definition of a force majeure is. Tennessee law doesn’t define it, so it’s up to the parties to negotiate the definition, scope, and application.

I’ve prepared marketing agreements that are currently being used by the Big 12 Athletic Conference, with Fortune 50 businesses as the counter-parties. Needless to say, these were really big deals. In working on those documents, we spent hours on all sorts of negotiations, but rarely–maybe never–talking about the definition of a force majeure.

So, if you are a business that is shut down–either by choice or by necessity–and it’s preventing you from performing under an agreement, look at your contract and see what it says about cancellation (and damages for cancellation). And, skip to the end, and see if there’s a force majeure provision.

If there’s not one, make sure that your future agreements have them.

Author: David

I am a creditors rights attorney with Bone McAllester Norton PLLC in Nashville, Tennessee.

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