Breaking contracts over coronavirus: Can you argue it’s an ‘act of God’?

Source: Andrew Schwartz, The Conversation, March 31, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has prevented countless people from fulfilling their contracts, from basketball players to babysitters. Could all of these people be sued for breach of contract, or are they excused due to this extraordinary event? What about payments made in advance, such as tickets bought for a concert that has now been canceled or a dorm room leased at a college that is now closed? ….

….Force majeure clauses are common in corporate contracts. They dictate which types of unexpected events will excuse performance and how to deal with payments already made or other losses. The precise wording of these clauses is key. Some might expressly mention pandemics or government orders, while others might not. Similarly, some clauses might call for full restitution, while others might provide for 50% refunds or no refund at all. Whatever the force majeure clause says will displace the ordinary rules of impossibility and restitution.

The contract between the NBA and its players, for example, includes a force majeure clause that specifically covers epidemics. It states that basketball teams can withhold part of their players’ salaries for each canceled game, and ESPN reported that the league was considering it. ….