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Remember your umbrella! Drafting umbrella contracts for a rainy day.

This article focuses on risks for construction contractors and suppliers when agreeing to standing, purchase order or umbrella contracts and provides some tips on how to avoid or mitigate those risks.

“Standing”, “purchase order” or “umbrella” contracts are frequently used where:

  • the client engages, or intends to engage, a contractor or supplier across in multiple projects; or
  • where the quantity of works, goods or services or time when those works, goods or services are required is unclear or subject to change.

Umbrella contracts aim to settle a set of standard terms and conditions with which both parties are comfortable, with the variables such as quantities and time for performance set out in the purchase order later.

Purchase order contains additional adverse terms or terms that conflict with the umbrella contract

A risk in using umbrella contracts is that the client issues a purchase order which includes or appends an additional set of terms and conditions which are not agreeable to the contractor and/or conflict with the umbrella contract.  If the contractor commences performances in accordance with that purchase order or otherwise does not raise objection within a reasonable time:

  • a “battle of the forms” may occur, where which terms and conditions prevail becomes debatable; and/or
  • the client’s purchase order terms may be considered accepted due to the contractor’s performance of the works or services the subject of the purchase order[1].

Some ways that the risk can be avoided or mitigated include:

  1. Prevent inconsistency: Ensure that the umbrella contract contains a term which states that it will apply to the extent of any inconsistency with the purchase order.
  2. Settle form: Ensure that the umbrella contract contains a term which requires any purchase order issued to be in the form appended to the contract as an annexure (and ensuring that the purchase order issued aligns to that form).
  3. Minimise variables: Minimise the amount of variable information that will be subject to the purchase order. The parties should agree as many terms as possible via the umbrella agreement and leaving the purchase order less work to do.
  4. Contractor’s acceptance: Include a term in the umbrella contract that the purchase order will not become operative (i.e. an agreement on its terms reached) unless the contractor accepts the purchase order in writing. Then, do not accept the purchase order in writing unless the variable terms included in it (such as the time for delivery of goods) are achievable.
  5. Limits on liability: Ensure the umbrella agreement contains all necessary limits on liability – e.g. a cap on liquidated damages.

Creation of multiple contracts

It is not uncommon for an umbrella contract to contain a term to the effect that a separate contract is created upon issue (or acceptance) of each purchase order.  This is generally desirable when the umbrella contract is intended to operate as a standing agreed set of terms governing the parties’ relationship across multiple projects.

However, where such a term is included and multiple purchase orders are issued on the one project, such a term can:

  • create general difficulties in administering the contracts and enforcing rights under those contracts; and
  • impact the operation of security of payment legislation.

On the first issue, the parties would need to issue contractual notices with reference to various purchase orders.  For example, in the event of a delay event occurring which impacts multiple purchase orders a notice would need to be issued to the client with reference each separate purchase order, satisfying all relevant criteria under the umbrella agreement for such a notice.  By way of another example, a dispute between the parties may arise due to non-payment of various purchase orders or defects in goods or services supplied under various purchase orders that may need to be individually pursued using the relevant contractual dispute mechanism.

On the second issue, the security of payment legislation in NSW (and other States and Territories) does not permit a payment claim being served (and adjudication application being made) across multiple contracts.

If there is a clause in the umbrella contract stating that each purchase order will give rise to a new contract, the contractor must submit separate payment claims in relation to each purchase order and pursue separate adjudications on each payment claim.

This was highlighted in a case where Holcim pursued an adjudication application against Acciona for work on the Sydney Light Rail project where some 12,500 purchase orders had been issued.  The New South Wales Supreme Court determined that Holcim’s payment claim which encompassed several purchase orders was not a valid payment claim[2] and Holcim lost out on the benefit of an adjudication determination worth nearly $3M.  In this type of case, the issuing of purchase orders which created separate contracts resulted in commercial and administrative unworkability and prejudiced the subcontractor’s ability to pursue a large adjudication against the head contractor.

Whether or not the umbrella contract should contain a clause which provides that each purchase order issued will give rise to a new contract should be considered on a case-by-case basis.

[1] Both of these risks are discussed in our previous article on Samios Plumbing Pty Ltd v John R Keith (QLD) Pty Ltd [2019] QDC 237.

[2] Acciona v Holcim [2020] NSWSC 1330 at [40].

Contractors – don’t use Dropbox if you want to get paid!

In Wärtsilä Australia Pty Ltd (ACN 003 736 892) v Primero Group Ltd (ACN 139 964 045) & Ors [2020] SASC 162, a contractor has failed to recoup $15M because it tried to submit completion reports via Dropbox link.  This is adds to the line of authorities which caution reliance on cloud-based technologies for issuing documents, whether under contract or statute.

Facts

Primero Group Ltd (Primero) contracted with Wärtsilä Australia Pty Ltd (Wärtsilä) to perform civil, mechanical and electrical works and supply tanks for the construction of the Barker Inlet power station on Torrens Island in South Australia.

The contract provided the following requirements for ‘SW Completion’:

(2) the tests, inspections and communications required by this subcontract (including Schedule 3) to have been carried out before SW Completion have been carried out, passed and the results of the tests, inspections and commissioning provided to [Wärtsilä]

(8) the completed quality assurance documentation … is available for inspection by [Wärtsilä] at the Facility Land’ (emphasis added)

Primero emailed Wärtsilä on 28 February 2020 a Dropbox link to the documents.  Yet Wärtsilä was unable to access the documents via the link until 2 March 2020.

On 2 March 2020, Primero served a payment claim under s 13 of the Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Act 2009 (SA) in the amount of $85,751,118 (excluding GST).  On 10 March 2020, Wärtsilä responded with a payment schedule which scheduled “nil” but also stated that the payment claim was invalid as it was not supported by a reference date.

Primero proceeded to adjudication and the adjudicator determined Primero’s payment claim was valid, awarding $15,269,674.30 (excluding GST).  Key to the adjudicator’s determination was that the payment claim was supported by a reference date of 28 February 2020.  Wärtsilä made an application to the Supreme Court for an order quashing the adjudication determination.

The parties agreed that if SW Completion under the contract had not occurred on 28 February 2020 the adjudicator’s determination was invalid.[1]

Primero argued that it had provided the documents and made them available for inspection by sending the email.

Primero also contended that the Electronic Communications Act 2000 (SA) (ECA) permitted the contractual obligation for the provision of the documents to be satisfied by electronic communication.  Under s 8 of the ECA, the time of receipt of an electronic communication was when it is ‘capable of being retrieved by the addressee’.

Decision

Sending a Dropbox link to the documents was not sufficient for SW Completion.  On 28 February 2020, Primero had emailed the link to Wärtsilä, but Wärtsilä was unable to completely download the documents.[2]

Accordingly, the adjudication determination was quashed because it was not made with reference to a valid payment claim.[3]  The $15M award to Primero was nullified.

Stanley J held[4]:

  1. in relation to SW Completion item (2), ‘the provision of the hyperlink merely provided a means by which Wärtsilä was permitted to download the documents stored in the cloud. Until it did so, those documents had not been provided.

 

  1. in relation to SW Completion item (8), ‘the hyperlink did not amount to making the documents available for inspection… because until all the documents were downloaded, they were not capable of being inspected at the facility land.’

His Honour stated:

a common sense and businesslike construction of the contractual requirements that the documents be provided and are available for inspection necessarily requires that the documents were capable of being downloaded on 28 February 2020. I find they were not.[5]

Stanley J applied a Queensland case Conveyor & General Engineering v Basetec Services & Anor [2015] 1 Qd R 265 (Conveyor) and a Federal Court case Clarke v Australian Computer Society Inc [2019] FCA 2175 (Clarke), which went to the point that a document could not itself be considered to be “left at” or “sent” to an intended recipient if an email containing a link to the document was sent to that recipient.[6]  To summarise, it is only the email itself which is sent or transmitted, not the document housed on the cloud server.

The ECA did not apply to the communication to solve the problem for Primero because[7]:

Both s 8 and s 10 prescribe circumstances that condition the operation of those provisions. Those circumstances include: first, that at the time the information is given by means of electronic communication, it was reasonable to expect that the information would be readily accessible so as to be useable for subsequent reference; and second, that the person to whom the information is required to be given consents to the information being given by means of an electronic communication.

His Honour held that Conveyor and Clarke stood as authority for the proposition that the provision of the documents by hyperlink did not constitute an “electronic communication” for the purposes for the ECA.

This point is highly relevant to because the relevant legislation governing electronic transmissions and communications are modelled off uniform Commonwealth legislation (Electronic Transactions Act 1999 (Cth)) and have largely consistent provisions.

Take Home Tips

It is important to consider closely whether the terms of your contract allow you to submit completion documents (or other documents) via a Dropbox link.  If the contract uses words like “provide”, “send”, “make available”, etc, it is unlikely that merely providing a link to those documents will satisfy the obligation unless and until the documents are actually downloaded or accessed in full by the intended recipient.  This can be difficult to prove.

It is unlikely that you will be able to fall back on the relevant electronic communications or transactions legislation in your jurisdiction because the provision of the link will not be considered an “electronic communication” of the document itself.  Strict compliance with the contract and statute (particularly in the realm of security of payment) is always required.

[1] At [12].

[2] At [93].

[3] At [128].

[4] At [94].

[5] At [105].

[6] At [98] to [101].

[7] At [117].