Fire! Fire! Force Majeure Clauses
Particularly since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, contractors and other companies are increasingly more interested in implementing force majeure clauses in their contracts. A force majeure clause operates when uncontrollable circumstances or events (e.g. war, natural disasters, or extreme weather) prevent a party from fulfilling their obligations under a contract.
In the event of such a circumstance, a party to a contract may attempt to rely on that clause to avoid their continued obligations under the contract. However, in the recent case of Interfor Corporation v. Mackenzie Sawmill Ltd. 2020 BCSC 1572, we see an example of where contractual obligations were not discharged.
In 2006, a contract was executed whereby Mackenzie Sawmill Ltd. (“Mackenzie”) agreed to supply wood chips to Interfor Corporation (“Interfor”) for an indefinite duration (the “Contract”). The Contract contained the following force majeure clause, which read, in part, as follows:
“If at any time while this Agreement is in force [Mackenzie] shuts down or curtails the operation of the mill due to fire, strike, or other labour disruptions…then Mackenzie without liability may discontinue or curtail the production and delivery of chips to Interfor.”
Between 2010 and 2014, a series of fires at the Mackenzie mill broke out, ruining the mill and ultimately stopping the production of chips for Interfor.
Mackenzie took steps to demolish the mill and, through associated companies of Mackenzie’s owners, built a new sawmill at the same location. When the new sawmill began operations, its owners began selling wood chips contrary to the Contract.
Interfor commenced an action seeking declaratory relief. One key issue was whether the force majeure clause in the Contract permanently discharged Mackenzie from its obligations under the Contract, or whether the Contract continued to bind and oblige Mackenzie to provide wood chips to Interfor despite the force majeure clause.
After a summary trial, the Court concluded that Mackenzie’s obligations under the Contract were not permanently discharged under the force majeure clause. Instead, the Court found that the fire triggered the force majeure clause which suspended Mackenzie’s obligation to provide wood chips to Interfor.
Notably, the Contract did not impose an obligation on Mackenzie to rebuild the mill or even to start production of chips. Mackenzie was not obligated to operate the mill and generate chips, but if it did, according to the Court, then it was required to sell the chips to Interfor.
- In the construction context, force majeure clauses often specify factors affecting the jobsite or a contractor’s ability to carry out their work in accordance with their contractual obligations. It is important to be aware of the circumstances identified by a force majeure
- Particularly during the time of COVID-19, it is worthwhile reviewing your contracts and ensuring a force majeure clause adequately protects your interests against uncontrollable circumstances, including but not limited to shutdowns or delays related to unavailability of materials, or restricted access to a jobsite due to public health orders.
- Circumstances surrounding force majeure events can be complicated and often require a detailed analysis of the facts. If you are involved in a dispute relating to a force majeure clause, it its best to speak to a lawyer as early as possible.
This article was written by Matthew T. Potomak and Liam M. Robertson, who are lawyers that practice in construction law with the law firm of Kuhn LLP. This article is only intended as a guide and cannot cover every situation. It is important to get legal advice for specific situations. If you have any questions or comments about this case or other construction law matters, please contact us at 604-864-8877 (Abbotsford) or 604-684-8668 (Vancouver).