In Asset Recovery vs. Walsh Construction, 2012 IL App (1st) 101226, the First District affirmed a bench trial judgment for a general contractor sued by a demolition subcontractor for breach of contract and quantum meruit. The lawsuit stemmed from numerous delays over the course of a multi-million dollar demolition subcontract in connection with the redevelopment of the Palmolive Building, a high profile building on Michigan Avenue, Chicago.
In affirming the trial court, the First District held that all the delays sued upon by the plaintiff were within the contemplation of the parties and also enforced a “no damages for delay” clause contained in both the subcontract (between plaintiff and defendant) and the prime contract (between defendant and building owner). In the lengthy opinion, the Asset Recovery Court – citing Illinois precedent – provides a good synopsis of several legal principles which commonly crop up in breach of contract litigation.
The key contract formation, interpretation and damages propositions cited in Asset Recovery include:
– Illinois applies the “four corners rule” and looks to the language of the contract to determine its meaning;
– Contractual ambiguity exists if the contract language is susceptible to more than one meaning;
– If an ambiguity is present, parol evidence may be admitted to aid the court in resolving the ambiguity;
– If the contract is unambiguous, extrinsic evidence isn’t provisionally admitted to show an external ambiguity;
– Where a contract is signed after its effective date, it relates back to the effective date;
– A party can accept a contract by course of conduct, but it must be clear that the conduct relates to the specific contract in question;
– the parol evidence rule precludes (a) the admissibility of evidence to alter, vary or contradict a written agreement and (b) bars evidence of understandings not reflected in the contract reached before or at the time of execution that vary or modify the contract terms;
– the parol evidence rule does not preclude a contracting party from offering proof of terms (such as an oral agreement to change in schedule) that supplement rather than contradict the contract;
– Contracting parties may waive delays in performance by words or conduct;
– In such a case, the court may extend the term of a contract for a “reasonable time”;
– “No damages for delay” clauses are enforceable but are construed strictly against the party seeking the provision’s benefit;
– Exceptions to “no damages for delay” clauses include (1) bad faith delay; (2) delay “not within the contemplation of the parties”; (3) delay of unreasonable duration; and (4) delay attributable to inexcusable ignorance or incompetence;
– Under waiver and estoppel rules, a party to a contract may not lull another party into false belief that strict compliance isn’t required and then sue for noncompliance.
The Asset Recovery case contains detailed facts and an exhaustive chronology. The case illustrates the interplay between prime contracts and subcontracts – the latter of which often mirror the prime contract terms. The opinion serves as an excellent resource for quick bullet-point research on contract formation, construction and enforceability issues; particularly in the construction law context.