Commercial Frustration and Prior Material Breach – Mizzou Appeals Court Weighs In

Clean the Uniform Co. St. Louis v. Magic Touch Cleaning, Inc., 300 S.W.3d 602 (Mo. 2009), a case from a jurisdiction I don’t practice in and that involves an unsexy fact pattern and monetary amount (less than $20K), still has some across-the-board relevance for its examination of liquidated damages clauses and the commercial frustration contract defense – two staples of commercial disputes.

The plaintiff and defendant entered into a three-year contract (the “Services Contract”) for plaintiff to rent cleaning uniforms and supplies to the defendant.  The contract called for the defendant to make at least partial payments on a weekly basis.  The contract contained a liquidated damages provision that said if the defendant prematurely terminated the Services Contract, the plaintiff could recover 50% of the average weekly rental charges for the six month period preceding the breach times the number of weeks remaining in the contract term.

The Services Contract also provided that it would be suspended for events that occurred beyond the parties’ control (a “force majeure” clause).

Defendant defaulted when its own one-year contract (the “Hospital Contract”) with a large VA hospital expired and wasn’t renewed.  Without the large VA hospital account, defendant couldn’t pay under the Services Contract.

Plaintiff sued to recover past-due amounts and liquidated damages under the Service Contract’s early termination provision.  The defendant argued that the VA hospital’s refusal to renew the Hospital Contract was an event beyond defendant’s control and excused its contract obligations to the plaintiff.

The trial court entered judgment for the plaintiff and the defendant appealed.

Held: Affirmed.

Q: Why?

The court found that the Hospital Contract’s termination was an event beyond defendant’s control.  The law is that if a party to a contract wants its performance to be excused if a certain event happens, and that event is reasonably foreseeable to happen after a contract is signed, the party should expressly provide for that contingency in the contract.

The commercial frustration doctrine posits that “if the happening of an event not foreseen by the parties and not caused by or under the control of either party has destroyed or nearly destroyed either the value of the performance or the object or purpose of the contract, then the parties are excused from further performance.”

While performance is technically still possible in a commercial frustration case, the defense will apply if the expected value of performance by a party has been destroyed by an intervening and unexpected event.

The court held that the defendants should have appreciated that the Hospital Contract could expire during the term of the Services Contract and not be renewed.  The defendant could have negotiated to make the Services Contract dependent on the continuing viability of the Hospital Contract but didn’t do so.  It wrote: “non-renewal of the [Hospital Contract] was a reasonably foreseeable risk at the time of contracting that did not excuse Customer’s performance under the [Services Contract].”

For the same reason, the defendant’s argument that it’s default was caused by an event beyond its control failed.  The Service Contract’s force majeure provision listed “strikes” and “lockouts” as specific events beyond the parties’ control.  But a third party’s refusal to renew an ancillary agreement (here, the Hospital Contract) wasn’t similar enough to a strike or lockout to absolve defendant’s payment obligations under the Service Contract.

Afterwords: To prevail on a commercial frustration argument, a defendant has a heavy burden.  Parties should take pains to spell out events that could happen during the term of a contract that makes it impossible for one party to perform its obligations.  A failure to clearly account for contingencies can result in a court finding that you assumed the risk of an intervening event making contractual performance impossible

 

 

 

 

 

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PaulP

Litigation attorney at Fisher Kanaris, P.C. representing businesses and individuals in all types of commercial disputes.