Commercial contracts, wasted expenditure and lost profits

Anyone drafting a commercial contract these days will invariably add, somewhere, some kind of exemption clause. Unfortunately the drafter is frequently in a hurry, aware that there are a limited number of billable hours he can plausibly attribute to a mere drafting exercise; and as often as not the clause will be lifted from some precedent in the firm’s files, without too much thought about what it might actually mean in real life.

One suspects that this is essentially what had happened in Soteria Insurance Ltd v IBM United Kingdom Ltd [2022] EWCA Civ 440. But whatever the history, the result was an expensive trip to the Court of Appeal because something like £80 million turned on the issue of the understanding of relatively few words.

To simplify, IBM agreed in 2014 to install a computer system for an insurance company, CISGIL, for a price of about £50 million. The contract contained a term which, while allowing a list of specific types of claim characterised as “direct loss” in the event of breach, contained a general disclaimer (Clause 23.3) as follows:

“[N]either party shall be liable to the other or any third party for any Losses arising under and/or in connection with this Agreement (whether in contract, tort (including negligence), breach of statutory or otherwise) which are indirect or consequential Losses, or for loss of profit, revenue, savings (including anticipated savings), data …, goodwill, reputation (in all cases whether direct or indirect) even if such Losses were foreseeable and notwithstanding that a party had been advised of the possibility that such Losses were in the contemplation of the other party or any third party”

There was also a damages cap of roughly £80 million.

Delays occurred; things went wrong; CIGSIL declined to pay a stage invoice tendered by IBM; and the contract came to an end. Each side blamed the other for the debacle. The judge (see [2021] EWHC 347 (TCC)) and the Court of Appeal both held that it had been IBM who had wrongfully repudiated the contract; with the tedious details of this we are not concerned.

At this point, however, the issue of damages arose. Seeing difficulties in claiming for its consequential loss of profits because of Clause 23.3, CIGSIL chose to quantify its claim instead by reference to its wasted expenditure, a figure eventually quantified by O’Farrell J at about £122 million. IBM at this point said that this was an exercise in pettifogging: whatever label CIGSIL chose to put on its claim, it was at bottom trying to claim for its loss of profits, which was precisely what Clause 23.3 prevented it doing.

O’Farrell J (see [2021] EWHC 347 (TCC) at [680]-[686] sided with IBM. CIGSIL was, she said, claiming for its loss of bargain; the measure of that loss of bargain was “the savings, revenues and profits that would have been achieved had the IT solution been successfully implemented.” And while CIGSIL was entitled to frame its claim as one for wasted expenditure if it so wished, that simply represented a different method of quantifying the loss of its bargain; it did not “change the characteristics of the losses for which compensation is sought”. It followed that the claim was inadmissible.

This certainly looked like a robust approach. It also chimed in neatly with modern academic analysis of expectation and reliance damages. At bottom both seek, in different ways, to put a claimant in the position he would be in had the contract been kept; either by showing the gains he would have made but now won’t, or by showing that an investment is now wasted that otherwise wouldn’t have been.

Nevertheless the Court of Appeal was having none of it. On a proper reading of Clause 23.3, the intention was indeed to exclude claims based on profits foregone, but to leave intact claims based on wasted expense. Even if both were similar animals on deep analysis, wasted expenditure did not fall within the meaning of loss of profit or revenue; from which it followed that in the absence of a specific reference to wasted expense, this remained recoverable.

Despite the seductive, apparently no-nonsense approach of O’Farrell J, we think the Court of Appeal got it right. When dealing with the interpretation of exception clauses, the fundamental issue is not any question of academic argument or analysis, but simply what reasonable businesspeople would have made of the words used. And a non-lawyer would undoubtedly say that money wasted was not the same thing as future gain foregone. Furthermore, as the Court pointed out, they would also have seen that there could be good reason to allow the former on the basis that it was likely to be relatively quantifiable and predictable, but to exclude the latter as likely to be open-ended and unquantifiable.

This case is thus good news for business certainty. Nevertheless, those drafting commercial contracts would do well not only to read it but to draft their contracts even more carefully. If those in the position of IBM do not like a result under which they remain liable for seven-figure sums in wasted expenditure, they can always exclude such claims expressly. They should also perhaps take the trouble to add that any such limit applies also to cases of repudiation, since even despite Soteriou, as a result of the decision in Kudos Catering (UK) v Manchester Central Convention Complex [2013] EWCA Civ 38, there remains a possibility that some clauses may be construed as being limited to mere defective performance and not applying to actual repudiation.

If a client complains about the number of billable hours devoted to such issues of drafting, a solicitor can always murmur in his ear that the investment is probably a good one. The Court of Appeal is an expensive place to end up in, however interesting its judgments may be to other practitioners and law professors, and no sensible businessman should want to go there if he can possibly help it.

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