“We will not process outstanding payments to contractors or subcontractors until the pandemic restrictions are lifted.”
Since the pandemic began, I have wondered what courts across the country would do when businesses started breaking contractual obligations and blaming, or using, pandemic restrictions as their defense. Most lawyers would agree that a force majeure clause would likely be the deciding factor in these types of breach of contract claims. However, the United States has never experienced the pandemic restrictions we have faced over these last few months and many companies recognize that their force majeure clause might not be as reliable as they might have once hoped. Now, we have the unique ability to witness what a California federal court will rule regarding this exact argument.
On June 8, 2020, California contractor Level 10 Construction, LP (“Level 10”) filed a Complaint in the United States District Court for the Southern District of California alleging Sea World declined to pay for construction of a 2020 theme park attraction until Sea World reopens. Specifically, Level 10 alleges that the payment for work, originally over $11 million, “was not conditioned upon Sea World San Diego’s theme park being open for business to the public,” that Sea World San Diego repudiated the contract by stating “Sea World San Diego would not process any outstanding payments until the parks open,” and that “Sea World San Diego understands they are in breach of contract.” As a result, Level 10 is claiming damages in the principal amount of not less than $3,278,471.30 plus interest.
The fact that Sea World has recognized that they are in breach of contract means that they may be relying on their force majeure clause or the doctrine of impossibility to justify their delayed payments to Level 10. Typically, the party relying on their force majeure clause may be granted relief from performing their contractual obligations if certain events render performance untenable or impossible.
As a refresher, the legal definition of force majeure, or “act of God,” describes any event that is unexpected by all parties, not caused by any party, and affects the relationship between them. A force majeure clause indicates that a party owes no liability to the other in the event force majeure makes performance impossible. A force majeure clause includes not only natural events but also acts by a human agency that are usually not within the scope of “acts of God.”
The pivotal moment in Level 10 Construction v Sea World LLC might be whether the pandemic restrictions make Sea World’s contractual obligations “impossible.” Performance of a duty is excused when a change of circumstance renders it impossible. Impossibility of performance of a duty under a contract is a defense for a claim of breach for non-performance of that duty when the performance of the duty becomes impossible due to unforeseen but changed circumstances. Simply stated, impossibility is a condition in which an event cannot physically or lawfully take place. Sure, the pandemic could easily be argued as an unforeseen event, but is the contractual obligation impossible?
SeaWorld Entertainment, Incorporated owns Sea World San Diego, and, according to their most recent Securities and Exchange Commission Form 10-Q filing (quarterly period ending March 31, 2020), they have roughly $192,760,000 in cash and cash equivalents. Sea World San Diego will likely need to show how meeting their contractual obligation is impossible due to the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, when they seem to have enough cash on hand to pay Level 10. While this seemingly simple breach of contract case might depend on Sea World’s force majeure clause or the doctrine of impossibility, the effects of this case are potentially deafening.
Assume for a minute that Sea World San Diego argues that they are, for all intents and purposes, bankrupt due to COVID-19. An argument which is not so absurd because it was reported that SeaWorld Entertainment recently raised $227.5 million through a private offering that it could use to help pay its bills after projecting a revenue decease of roughly 32%. The court might be put in a position to determine just how far they are willing to stretch the definition of impossibility. Having to raise money in order to make ends meet might be enough to make courts agree with Sea World’s defense.
Every industry, especially the construction industry, should be paying attention to Level 10 Construction v Sea World LLC. If Sea World is successful, then businesses that have requested a Paycheck Protection Program loan might have an argument that the doctrine of impossibility applies in their contractual obligations. This could lead to thousands of businesses refusing to honor their contractual agreements and significantly increase the number of cases in an already inundated court system.
Author Christopher M. Wise is an attorney and the Managing Member of Wise Law, LLC in Louisville, Kentucky. He focuses on contractor-subcontractor litigation and family law litigation.