There are several ways for terms be implied into a commercial contract. Terms can be implied:
- by law – such as the consumer protection provisions of the Australian Consumer Law or the implied duty of good faith; or
- by fact, where a term is reasonable, equitable, obvious and necessary to give business efficacy to the contract.
The recent case of Rehau v AAP Industries provides a useful reminder that key terms can be implied into a contract, with significant effect.
AAP Industries, a manufacturer of plumbing products, and Rehau, a wholesale supplier, were in dispute over a supply agreement dated 1999.
AAP Industries had agreed to supply 9 specified plumbing products to Rehau at a fixed price. The initial term of the agreement was 12 months with automatic renewals.
In 2013, after trying to renegotiate prices, Rehau stopped ordering the products. AAP Industries claimed that this was a breach of the agreement.
AAP Industries argued that although the agreement didn’t state so expressly, it contained an implied exclusivity clause, requiring Rehau to purchase the products only from AAP Industries.
Both the primary judge and the Court of Appeal agreed with AAP Industries.
The court’s view was that even though there was no exclusivity clause, the agreement, when construed as a whole, required Rehau to purchase the products exclusively from AAP Industries.
The main provisions that were considered included:
- AAP Industries had to reserve production capacity to meet Rehau’s requirements and to plan raw material to meet Rehau’s deadlines.
- AAP Industries had to maintain 2 months’ buffer stock free of charge.
- Any failure by AAP Industries to meet a delivery deadline would constitute default of performance, entitling Rehau to withdraw from the Contract.
- The agreement renewed automatically unless a party gave 3 months’ notice.
The court said that these terms meant it was equitable and reasonable to find that exclusivity was implied. The court also said that the agreement didn’t make sense without exclusivity as otherwise AAP Industries would have to hold buffer stock and reserve capacity with no corresponding obligation on Rehau to buy.
Sackville AJA noted the case of Colonial Ammunition Co v Reid, which stated that where a written agreement contains express terms relating to a party, the court should only find an implied obligation for the same party in the clearest case. In this case, the court considered that the proper construction of the contract was sufficiently clear to warrant the implication of exclusivity.
This case also highlights the importance of plain language drafting. Issues about interpreting “shall” vs “will” have a lengthy history.
In this case, the provision that stated “Rehau shall purchase the [plumbing products] from AAP” was interpreted as an obligation on Rehau to purchase the products at the fixed price. A non-legal reader could easily think this was a statement of intention, not obligation.
This finding was made even though the fixed price was not actually set out in the document.
The key takeaways from this case are:
- You can exclude implied terms and warranties (to the extent permitted by law) in a general clause, but it works even better to add clear statements on important issues – for example, that the agreement is non-exclusive.
- If you use plain language drafting, your business is more likely to understand its obligations and be able to head off potential disputes.
If you would like us to review your standard contracts with these takeaways in mind, contact us.