Defenses of impossibility of performance and frustration of purpose

Parties in complex commercial cases that are accused of defaulting on or breaching a contract may invoke the defense of impossibility, arguing that performance of contractual obligations was rendered impossible by an intervening event. Under New York law, those arguments rarely make it past the motion stage. Courts apply the doctrine narrowly, only to executory contracts and only where the intervening event was both unforeseeable and destroyed either the contract’s subject matter or the means of performance.

The related doctrine of frustration of purpose may apply more broadly, but only where it would make little sense to perform on a contract because of an intervening event. The narrowness of these doctrines—and their questionable utility for litigators—underscores the importance of striving during the contract drafting process to include contingency clauses providing for foreseeable possibilities and language making clear the contract’s purpose.

Court of Appeals Precedent

The leading New York case on the impossibility doctrine is Kel Kim Corp. v. Central Markets, 70 N.Y.2d 900 (1987). In that case, plaintiff Kel Kim defaulted on a lease for a roller-skating rink it operated when it was unable to maintain adequate insurance coverage, as required by the lease, due to the liability insurance crisis affecting the United States in the mid- 1980s. Kel Kim sued for a declaratory judgment, declaring that it should be excused from the obligation because performance had been rendered impossible.

The trial court granted summary judgment against Kel Kim, and the Appellate Division affirmed. The Court of Appeals then affirmed, agreeing that the impossibility doctrine did not excuse Kel Kim’s nonperformance. The court reasoned that the doctrine is “applied narrowly, due in part to judicial recognition that the purpose of contract law is to allocate the risks that might affect performance and that performance should be excused only in extreme circumstances.” The doctrine applies “only when the destruction of the subject matter of the contract or the means of performance makes performance objectively impossible,” and it did not apply as to Kel Kim because its “inability to procure and maintain requisite coverage could have been foreseen and guarded against when it specifically undertook that obligation in the lease.”

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Co-Head of Litigation and Disputes, New York

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