COVID-19 Impact on Terms and Conditions
Consider another recent case that relied on terms and conditions under a contract that was affected by COVID-19 shutdowns is the case of Dyco Hotels Pty Ltd v Laundry Hotels (Quarry) Pty Ltd. This case concerned the sale of the Quarryman Hotel in Pyrmont, New South Wales (NSW). The contract was signed on 31 January 2020, with the date of settlement set for 27 March 2020.
The contract price was for $11,250,000 and included the associated hotel licence, the gaming machine entitlements and the hotel business itself. The deposit paid by the buyers was $562,500.
In the sale contract, there was an Additional Clause 50.1 which imposed various obligations upon the vendor, including the obligation to continue to operate the business “in the usual and ordinary course as regards to its nature, scope and manner”.
On the 23 March 2020, 4 days before settlement, public health orders issued shutting down the majority of hospitality services. This made it unlawful for the hotel to continue to operate, except for takeaway food and drinks, in accordance with the public health directions.
The buyers argued that the business sale was frustrated by the public health orders since the hotel was no longer able to operate in the “usual and ordinary course as regards to its nature, scope and manner”. They asked for return of the $562,500 deposit and claimed the value of the assets decreased by $1 million due to the public health orders.
The vendor disagreed.
The vendor’s position was that the hotel continued to trade as a going concern within the confines of the health orders and in accordance with the legal restrictions that had been imposed upon it. If the vendor had operated contrary to the public health orders, it would have placed the future operation of the business in jeopardy, including the hotel licence to operate. This would have damaged the goodwill of the hotel. The vendor also argued that they were entitled to terminate the contract, retain the deposit and seek damages for the loss of the bargain.
The NSW Supreme Court found in the vendor’s favour and held that the contract was not frustrated by COVID-19 public health orders. The vendor was entitled to keep the $562,500 deposit and recover damages as well for the loss of bargain. The court assessed the damages to be $900,000 and deducted the deposit of $562,500 from that amount.
Although the terms and conditions in this case were not online but contained in sale documents, it does demonstrate that carefully considered terms and conditions can make a big difference to the outcome of a dispute.
The purchasers might have been better protected if there were any contractual warranties given by the vendor about the future financial performance of the hotel. Since there were no warranties given, the purchasers accepted the risks. The purchasers were experienced in the Sydney hotel operations business and understood the various potential risks of legislative changes, despite not being familiar with the impact of a pandemic.
This is a good illustration of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on terms and conditions and contemplation of the risks associated with business operations. Following the lessons in this case, a vendor would be wise to include business conduct obligations under the contract that can be altered or changed to comply with public health emergencies. A buyer would be wise to include options to terminate the contract in the event where the value of the business has dramatically dropped due to unexpected circumstances.
Another COVID-19 impact on the operation of businesses can be seen in the recent case of Flight Centre Travel Group Limited Trading as Aunt Betty v Goel. Terms and conditions were online and agreed to by click wrap agreement – where the buyer has to check a box stating they agree to terms and conditions before being able to complete the purchase.
In the first hearing, Goel had been awarded a refund on the basis that the purchased flights hadn’t been received.
On the 5 November 2019, the customer (Goel) had made a booking online, for the return flights from Sydney to Delhi scheduled for flights during April 2020. The $2,336.30 flights were with Malaysia Airlines which cancelled the flights during March 2020, when COVID-19 public health orders restricted international travel.
The terms and conditions stated that Flight Centre was only agent and not responsible for delivery. If that were the case, Malaysian Airlines would have been liable to provide the refund, not Flight Centre.
The case we are referring to was an appeal by Flight Centre where it argued that the business Aunt Betty operated as an agent, and not the supplier of the service and therefore was not liable for actions by the airline in cancelling the flight. It would have set a damaging precedent for Flight Centre to be liable to refund all booking costs where it had not received the bulk of those funds, which had been passed on to the suppliers (like Malaysian Airlines) pending delivery.
The tribunal, on appeal, held that Goel would have been aware at the time of booking that he had booked the flights with an agent and not the actual airline carrier itself. It is interesting to note that the court decided that the booking could not have been made without the positive acknowledgement of the terms and conditions on the website. The court also decided that there was no breach of the consumer laws by the agent, and it was not liable to provide the refund.