Impact of COVID-19 on leases, contracts and business interruption claims


To say that most businesses were not prepared for the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic would be an understatement. Although several countries have experienced and learned from the SARS and swine flu epidemics, no one was really prepared for what 2020 had in store. American citizens had not experienced anything like it since the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918.

From a legal standpoint, the business world has learned a lot in a short period of time. The many obstacles that business owners have faced since the start of the pandemic – and the lessons they have learned – could help all businesses be more resilient in the future. At the same time, many mistakes have been made and we must learn from them.

In this article, let’s take a look at the impact of COVID-19 on commercial leases and business interruption practices in particular.

Commercial lease contracts

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many businesses were unable to pay their rent due to an unexpected drop in income. As a result, many struggling commercial tenants have written to their landlords asking for a temporary suspension of rent payments. Finally, the CDC announced a moratorium on residential evictions that was recently extended until March 31, 2021.

Unfortunately, commercial tenants have not been so fortunate. Commercial leases generally do not contain force majeure provisions, nor do they cover disasters such as a pandemic.

What is a force majeure clause?

“Force majeure” refers to a provision included in contracts which essentially eliminates liability for an event beyond the control of a party to the contract (for example, natural and unavoidable disasters), and which prevents such party to perform its obligations under the contract.

In other words, the ability of a party to seek redress due to force majeure depends entirely on the express terms of its contract. As such, force majeure events must be specifically factored into the contract, which, again, is not usually the case with commercial leases.

Keep in mind that just having a force majeure provision in a contract may not be enough to excuse a contractual obligation. But as a preventive measure, it’s a good place to start.

Let’s bring it back to commercial leases. Unless a temporary halt in rent payments is included in the contract, it is entirely at the discretion of the landlord. Demonstrating a full and on-time payment history and making a respectful and compelling request can be very helpful (or not).

What are the doctrines of impossibility of execution and frustration of finality?

Since the start of the pandemic, many lawyers have argued that New York City laws excuse paying rent under COVID-19 conditions. Under the enforceability doctrine, a government-mandated foreclosure, they say, prevents many commercial tenants from paying rent.

The object frustration doctrine also provided a legal basis for arguing for a suspension of rent payments. Due to unforeseen circumstances caused by the pandemic, most business owners are unable to:

Therefore, there can be frustration of the purpose of the commercial lease agreement, and the rent payments of a commercial tenant can potentially be excused.

Whether it is legally viable to stop rent payments under the inability to perform or goal frustration doctrines will continue to be heavily debated in landlord-tenant business disputes as long as COVID continues. -19 will persist.

Bottom Line: In the future, businesses may negotiate with their landlords to include force majeure provisions or unpredictable emergency language that allows them to temporarily suspend rent payments if such situations arise. We are seeing landlords adding arbitration provisions, which may not be the best idea for tenants or landlords.

Commercial contracts

As soon as the government-imposed closures took effect, the cash flow dried up. Many business owners have started to question the viability of their businesses, reviewing virtually all of their existing contracts and memberships in an effort to save money during these tough times.

Many B2B companies compromised and offered discounts to struggling customers because they couldn’t afford to lose their business.

Keep the outline of the contract

Business contracts can be long and overwhelming, but they are the legal roadmap for structuring your relationship with the other party to the agreement. To help organize all of the information in a contract, we recommend that you keep a brief bulleted outline for each.

Each plan should include important information, such as:

Of course, not all contracts are created equal, so your plan should be tailored to the particular transaction in question.

If your business operates multiple contracts, we recommend that you have physical and electronic copies of each contract. You should always have a copy of the fully signed contract handy.

Keep physical copies in a secure place where you can quickly refer to each contract (accordion files are great for storage and organization). Electronic copies of fully signed contracts should be saved in password protected files.

Know your doctrines

What if the COVID-19 pandemic puts you on the verge of breaching your contract, there is no force majeure provision applicable, and the other party to the contract is not not willing to renegotiate?

Perhaps it is time to see if the doctrines of the impossibility, impracticability or frustration of purpose can apply.

As discussed above, the doctrine of impossibility of performance implies a situation in which circumstances arise which make performance impossible. This doctrine is used as a defense against the performance of a contractual obligation (such as the payment of rent).

In special circumstances, this defense would be granted and performance under contract would be excused. For example, you would never expect a painter to finish painting a house that has just burned down.

The doctrine of impracticable performance exists when there are “extreme, unreasonable and unforeseeable hardship due to an inevitable event or event”. It’s more than just a change in the degree of difficulty or expense. These are contractual obligations that become excessively onerous, difficult to perform or harmful.

Another contractual doctrine that could be applied to you is the doctrine of frustration of purpose, which we touched on earlier. The frustration of the goal requires the following:

Although the parameters are specific, this doctrine may be more suitable for your business than inability to perform or force majeure when performance or payment is not “impossible”, but the circumstances still justify a waiver. execution.

Bottom Line: Each contract requires its own careful and individual analysis.

Business interruption insurance

Many businesses have been forced to close (permanently or temporarily) due to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent government shutdown orders. As a result, many of these companies have filed a claim with their insurance provider for business interruption coverage.

Business interruption insurance provides a business with the income it would have earned had the disaster not occurred. Coverage is typically provided as part of a property insurance policy or as part of a comprehensive policy. Business interruption coverage compensates the business for lost income if a business were to vacate property due to disaster-related damage covered by the property insurance policy.

Typically, direct physical loss or damage (such as a natural disaster) would trigger business interruption coverage. Business interruption coverage may also be triggered due to the actions of civil authorities. Most business interruption insurance policies for actions of civil authorities contain the same standard language.

What is a civil authority provision?

The provisions of the civil authorities aim to enforce the business interruption guarantee when there is damage to the property of another company which leads the civil authorities to prohibit access to the area where the property of the company is located. insured.

For example, suppose an earthquake hits Times Square (an unlikely scenario) and authorities such as the Mayor of New York City or the Governor of New York State order Time Square to shut down. This area could include businesses that would be affected by such a civil authority order, even if those businesses suffered little or no damage.

However, most civil authority provisions also require that the civil authority order be in response to direct physical damage resulting from a cause covered by the insurance policy. As a result, insurance policy providers are likely to deny most business interruption claims related to COVID-19.

An overwhelming majority of these refusals are due to the absence of physical damage due to a covered cause.

Insured businesses could try to obtain business interruption coverage by claiming that COVID-19 itself caused physical damage by contaminating a property. Unfortunately, most insurance companies explicitly exempt coverage for damage from viruses and bacteria and disagree that COVID-19 causes actual physical damage.

However, filing a commercial claim could be beneficial. If there is ever a change in the laws dating back to the date of your claim, you may be covered retroactively.

Regardless, businesses continue to file business interruption claims. After all, if you don’t file a claim within the allotted time, you may lose your claim forever. Refusal of a claim reserves the right to appeal in the near future.

Bottom Line: Many insurance companies are sued by business owners for refusing business interruption insurance coverage. If the courts rule favorably regarding COVID-19 and the physical loss or damage, businesses may be able to obtain insurance coverage after an appeal.

© Copyright 2017 – 2021 Sinayskaya Yuniver PCRevue nationale de droit, volume XI, number 172

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