Can COVID-19 Excuse You From Contractual Obligations?

COVID-19 has brought about many horrible scenarios relating to public health and serious financial stress on our incredibly complicated financial system. But small businesses are confronting a specific issue–can COVID-19 excuse small businesses or individuals from their contractual obligations?

The answer depends on the language contained in the contract, local and state law (including Emergency Orders/Directives from governors and/or mayors), and the connection between COVID-19 and the parties’ ability to perform their contractual obligations.

Many contracts contain a “Force Majeure” clause or an “Acts of God” provision. These provisions apply when a contract cannot be performed due to causes which are outside the control of the parties and could not be avoided by exercise of due care. These clauses allocate risk between the parties when an unanticipated event makes performance impossible or impracticable for each party or both parties.

Also, the more specific the clause, the more limited application it has. Most clauses specify that they are only invoked when performance becomes impossible.

Courts generally require the party claiming force majeure to show that the event was not foreseeable and directly caused the failure to meet its contractual obligations. Thus, a pandemic resulting in mass closures of all restaurants, bars, schools and the like should not be a close call. This is not a normal risk of doing business.

Note that many contracts have specific requirements in order to trigger the “Force Majeure” clause or “Acts of God” provision–namely, notice to the other party.

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