Foo Fighters’ Nashville Lawsuit provides important lesson on allocating risks in contracts

When COVID first hit, lawyers talked about how future contracts would evolve to anticipate the special challenges presented by a global pandemic.

Now, 19 months in, a new Davidson County Chancery lawsuit filed on behalf of the Foo Fighters shows that–even with all the planning in the world–COVID is still disrupting the best laid plans.

The plaintiff (the touring company that books gigs for the band) alleges that defendant hired the Foo Fighters to perform at an August 13, 2021 corporate event for payroll processing company ADP. The parties entered entered into a April 5, 2021 written agreement. Per the contract, the band would receive $3,000,000 for the performance, with half paid when the contract was signed, and the other half paid at (or before) the event.

But this contract was updated to take into account all the lessons learned during a global pandemic.

Per Paragraph 10 of the Complaint, if the defendant defaults or cancels the performance for any reason, the band would receive the full performance payment (regardless of whether the band actually plays the show).

Based on the allegations of the Complaint, it’s clear that concerns about COVID played a large role in the negotiations. In fact, the parties included a section called “COVID CANCELLATION,” which–as you’d guess–allocated the risk of a forced cancellation due to the pandemic.

And, boy-oh-boy, was that risk apportioned squarely onto the plaintiff:

In short, if the contracted for event were to be deemed unsafe and impossible due to the resurgence of COVID, this provision says that it does not matter. The band, in their “sole reasonable discretion,” can terminate the obligation and refuse to perform…and still get paid.

Was COVID a “force majuere” event? The band says that they expressly removed the reference to COVID in that paragraph, and further allege this:

There’s a bit more to the story, but, in short, COVID didn’t go away, and this August 2021 event at Mile High Stadium in Denver became less and less of a good idea for the ADP corporate event.

They discussed limited capacity, the band offered to do an exclusive live-stream concert, but, on August 4, 2021 (9 days before the event), the defendant decided to cancel the event. The lawsuit points out that “there was no local, state, or other governmental restriction that required the cancellation of the Event” and, helpfully, points out a number of other large concerts and events that happened that weekend in or near Denver.

The Foo Fighters have sued for the $1,500,000 owed under the Agreement. (And I tend to agree with their analysis of the contract.)

It’s an interesting case. On the most superficial level, it shows that, no matter how hard you try, it’s hard to contract around the unexpected.

In April 2021, my own family was so exuberant about the vaccines and a COVID-free summer (and fall) that we surprised our kids with shockingly expensive Jonas Brothers tickets to celebrate the end of the pandemic. In April, my wife and I believed we had weathered the storm and that a sold out concert in September 2021 was a totally safe and reasonable reward for our kids. We went, but we were terrified taking our vaccinated kids to the show.

I have to wonder if the defendants, here, suffered from a similar bit of vaccine optimism.

Nevertheless, the Foo Fighters’ lawyers did not share that optimism; or, if they did, they included sufficient terms in the contract to assign the burden of any risk squarely on the other party.

From what I’ve seen of it, it’s a good contract. Who knew we’d be learning some lessons about contract law from the Foo Fighters?