Many construction participants know arbitration provides a fair, efficient and expeditious process well-suited to resolving construction disputes. One key to maximizing the efficiencies of arbitration is to avoid disputes over the threshold issue of whether an arbitration agreement is enforceable. This blog examines a recent Missouri case highlighting one potential pitfall to avoid so that an agreement to arbitrate is enforceable under Missouri law.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had significant impacts on the U.S. state and federal court systems and has delayed the progression of cases awaiting trial. While many courts have remained “open,” they have considerably modified operations and procedures to ensure the safety of court personnel, attorneys, and jurors.
Due to coronavirus concerns, owners and higher-tier contracting parties may be considering pausing work on a project until the impacts of the virus are better known and under control. Suspension clauses typically confer upon one party a unilateral right to suspend contract performance (usually for a certain period of time) without materially breaching the contract.
Before issuing such a suspension directive, however, a party should take care to read and understand its contractual rights and obligations under the contractual suspension clause. Specifically, the party ordering the suspension should understand what additional amounts may be owed under the contract if that party chooses to suspend performance of the work and should be aware of at what point, if any, the other party would be legally justified in terminating the contract. Some suspension of work clauses allow termination of the contract after a prescribed period of suspension of the work. Note also that if the contract does not contain a suspension clause, the owner that suspends work on the project may be putting itself in material breach of contract.
Force majeure law in the context of pandemics and epidemics is largely uncharted territory. While some sources predict an uptick in disputes, claims, and litigation because of the novel coronavirus and its reverberating effects (which could, unfortunately, be felt for some time), it is hard to know now exactly how a court or arbitrator would decide the issue of responsibility for project delays or disruption due to labor shortages, unavailability of or delay in obtaining materials, or the significant increase in cost of materials, caused by or resulting from a spreading virus. In many cases, the unavailability, delay, or increased expense may be out of the contractor’s control. For example, local governments, health organizations, and employers are recommending, and in some cases, mandating restrictions on traveling or assembling in groups, and quarantines.
The United States’ recent imposition of a 25 percent tariff on imported steel has been problematic for contractors and subcontractors alike. The increased cost of steel means increased costs on projects, and in many occasions, on projects for which parties have already entered into contracts. In fact, benchmark U.S. steel prices have risen almost 40 percent since the beginning of the year, according to an Engineering News-Record report. In these situations, can a contractor or subcontractor find relief from additional costs in the force majeure clause of their contract? While Missouri courts have not addressed the relationship between increases caused by tariffs and force majeure clauses, extra-jurisdictional courts have offered some guidance on how tariffs could be treated under such a clause.
The author has practiced construction law for nearly 40 years and continues to be amazed or disappointed, as the case may be, by the frequency of one type of problem: Non-compliance with what are usually simple contract terms for giving notice of a claim for additional compensation, damages or time.
Many legal battles in the construction industry revolve around contract interpretation disputes. Care in contract drafting is a valuable way to avoid disputes.
A fundamental principle of contract interpretation is to ascertain and give effect to the parties’ objectively expressed intent. What a party was trying to say, without accurately expressing it, does not count. Contract terms are usually given their ordinary (i.e., dictionary) meaning unless the contract specially defines them or the industry has adopted a special meaning known to both parties.