Mining giant Rio Tinto is attempting to use new American sanctions on Russia to walk away from an agreement with a Russian aluminium company, Rusal. But if the contract is not worded precisely, the law may actually work to Rio’s detriment.
Many companies have successfully ended contracts when war has broken out or the government has changed the law in ways that significantly impacted the contract. However, the fact a government’s actions have made a contract harder or more expensive to complete does not automatically mean it will be terminated.
Rio Tinto’s case depends on whether it can invoke a “force majeure” clause in its contracts with Rusal. This kind of clause allows parties to suspend or end a contract when unique and unforeseen events beyond their control occur.
Under the new sanctions, companies and individuals within the United States have until May 7 to divest or transfer any debt, equity or other holdings in Rusal. Rusal is controlled by Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska, who has previously been investigated for money laundering, extortion, bribery and alleged links to organised crime groups.
Rio Tinto has a joint venture with Rusal that could be affected by the US sanctions.
The effect of force majeure
Typically, when unique or unforeseen events occur, the contract may be legally “frustrated” and end automatically. Frustration is the legal term for a contract being so radically affected by unforeseeable events outside the control of the parties that it is terminated.
A force majeure clause generally prevents this happening because the inclusion of the clause is regarded as “foresight” of the event. However, force majeure clauses typically allow parties to end the contract if the event lasts for a given time, and don’t always require “radical change” like the frustration doctrine does.
It all turns upon the wording of the particular clause in the Rio Tinto contracts.
Force majeure through history
A successful claim of force majeure was made in the American case of Eastern Airlines v McDonnell Douglas Corp. In this case aircraft manufacturer McDonnell Douglas argued that US government policy during the Vietnam War (occurring at the time) caused the government to prioritise military contracts over civilian ones.
As a result, McDonnell Douglas’s contract with Eastern Airlines was delayed. It invoked a force majeure clause covering “acts of government” to avoid liability for the airline’s lost profits.
The court ruled that McDonnell Douglas was entitled to rely upon the force majeure clause and walk away from the agreement due to the government’s policy.
Importantly, just because a contract has a force majeure clause, this does not mean it can be used freely. Some English cases suggest that parties must still make reasonable efforts to keep the contract alive before resorting to force majeure. Evidence of attempts to preserve its contracts with Rusal would likely work in Rio Tinto’s favour.
The courts have also stressed that force majeure cannot be relied upon where there were reasonable alternative ways to complete the contract.
In the Australian case of European Bank Ltd v Citibank Ltd, Citibank was unsuccessful in claiming force majeure when it transferred European Bank’s deposit to a New York account and the funds were seized by the United States Marshal. The force majeure clause allowed Citibank to escape liability if it could not perform due to “reasons beyond its reasonable control”.
The court held that Citibank could have refunded European Bank’s deposit from other accounts or made other arrangements, so the situation could have been avoided.
In Rio Tinto’s case, its efforts to make alternative arrangements will be of critical importance. If there are no feasible options other than to cancel the Rusal contracts, force majeure will likely apply.
When force majeure doesn’t work
But there are plenty of examples where force majeure events such as government intervention have not been regarded as sufficient grounds to end a contract.
In 1962, a court in the United Kingdom found that the closure of the Suez Canal was not sufficient to end a contract requiring 300 tonnes of Sudanese nuts to be shipped between Port Sudan and Hamburg.
The Suez Canal would have been the cheapest and fastest shipping route. However, it was still possible to deliver the nuts by sailing around the Cape of Good Hope, even if this increased the cost for the seller and took more time.
Inadequate wording in a force majeure clause can also backfire, as in the Kriti Rex case. Here a force majeure clause covering ‘“events beyond the control of the parties” was deemed inapplicable because the courier hired by the purchaser (which damaged the goods) was regarded as being within the purchaser’s control.
So what for Rio Tinto?
Ultimately, the success of Rio Tinto’s attempt to invoke force majeure depends entirely upon the wording of the clauses and whether these account for events such as sanctions being imposed.
But it is highly unlikely the clauses would be this specific as the circumstances are unique. Traditional inclusions in force majeure clauses are things like natural disasters, labour strikes or war, not a foreign government’s political sanction of a company’s controller.
Force majeure clauses are also interpreted quite narrowly by courts, so cannot just be stretched to cover every situation.
If the clauses in Rio’s contracts are deemed not to account for the US sanctions, Rio must rely on the doctrine of frustration. It would need to demonstrate that contracting with a company controlled by a Russian oligarch who has been subsequently sanctioned by the US was a reasonably unforeseeable event when the contract was made, and this event radically altered the contract.
It would not be enough for Rio Tinto to argue it might lose money or be inconvenienced. Though the US government’s actions might have been unexpected, the broader effects of Rusal’s suspension upon Rio Tinto’s operations remain to be seen.
If the consequences are purely financial or inconvenient, Rio Tinto’s legal mettle might be tested.