Navigating Contractual Force Majeure and Common Law Defenses in Times of Crisis

In the wake of global disruptions like the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses and legal professionals are closely examining the interplay between contractual force majeure clauses and common law defenses such as impossibility and frustration of purpose. Understanding how these legal concepts interact is crucial for managing contracts during unforeseen events.

Understanding Force Majeure Clauses

Force majeure clauses are contractual provisions that describe certain events which can significantly disrupt the parties’ ability to fulfill their obligations. These events typically include natural disasters, war, strikes, and governmental actions. Importantly, such clauses often specify that while performance may be paused or adjusted due to these events, financial obligations, like the payment of rent, typically continue.

Legal Doctrines of Impossibility and Frustration of Purpose

The common law doctrines of impossibility and frustration of purpose come into play when unforeseen events make the fulfillment of a contract impractical or pointless. Impossibility occurs when an event objectively renders the contractual duties unperformable. Frustration of purpose applies when an unforeseen event undermines the very reason for entering into the contract, even if performance is still physically possible.

The Foreseeability Factor

Florida law, like many jurisdictions, posits that these doctrines can only be invoked when the disruptive events were truly unforeseen and not addressed within the contract. For instance, if a contract explicitly mentions pandemics as a force majeure event, this suggests that the parties anticipated such a disruption, potentially limiting the applicability of common law defenses. Simply put, the Court will not look outside of the contract to permit common law relief, when the contract addresses the disruptive event on its face, normally within the contours of a force majeure provision.

Judicial Interpretation and Practical Examples

Courts have consistently emphasized the sanctity of contracts and the need to enforce clear terms agreed upon by the parties. In decisions such as Vereit Real Estate, L.P. v. Fitness International, LLC and Fitness International v. 93 FLRPT. 2D22-1182, courts have clarified that the mere presence of a disruptive event like a pandemic does not automatically negate contractual obligations, especially when the contract addresses such contingencies.

In Vereit, the court noted that although the COVID-19 pandemic was unpredictable, the contract’s explicit inclusion of “restrictive laws” within its force majeure clause meant that such governmental actions were foreseeable. As such, tenants remained responsible for their rent payments despite the pandemic.

These rulings underscore the principle that foreseeability of risks plays a crucial role in determining the applicability of both contractual and common law defenses.

Implications for Contract Drafting

These legal principles highlight the importance of precise and foresighted contract drafting. Parties should consider including comprehensive force majeure clauses that explicitly cover a broad range of potential disruptions. Additionally, specifying which obligations are suspended and which continue despite such events can prevent future legal disputes.


The balance between contractual force majeure provisions and common law defenses underscores the importance of anticipation and clarity in contract law. In times of crisis, these legal tools provide a framework for businesses to manage their obligations and rights. By understanding and properly implementing these principles, parties can ensure more resilient and enforceable contracts, even in the face of unforeseen challenges.

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