Force majeure

Force majeure — «форс мажор» — relates to a provision that frees parties from their contractual obligations if an unforeseeable and unavoidable event prevents one or both parties from performing.

Russian law does not define «force majeure», instead it talks of superior forces (обстоятельства непреодолимой силы) — extraordinary circumstances unavoidable in the given situation (art. 401(3) of the Civil Code). Strictly speaking, the French expression «force majeure» means exactly that — a superior force, and there should be no difference between force majeure (форс мажор) and superior forces (обстоятельства непреодолимой силы).

However, life does not stay still and with time these terms have drifted away in slightly different directions.

A superior force is an event that according to article 401(3) of the Civil Code frees a party from liability regardless of whether there is a special provision in the contract. Russian courts understand a superior force narrowly: generally, only acts of nature would do. Strikes, acts of state authorities, the adoption of new laws or regulations, bankruptcies and so on are not usually seen as legitimate excuses to walk away from obligations.

On the other hand, parties include in their contracts a special provision titled «force majeure». They tend to broaden the range of circumstances that free them from liability. This is perfectly OK; yet this is not, strictly speaking, the same «superior force» as defined by law but a contractual term which may or may not be enforceable as any other contractual stipulation. Moreover, quite often such provisions do not free the nonperforming party from liability but seek to sort out circumstances which both parties fail to foresee.