Last week, the Supreme Court of Tennessee heard oral arguments on a contract interpretation issue in a construction dispute between Ray Bell Construction and Tennessee Department of Transportation.  You can get the details here, but the real lesson is one about how to interpret contracts, whether you are talking about the scope of work, changes, compensation or delays.

The TDOT Dispute.  The disagreement in the the TDOT case involved a question whether the contractor was entitled to an early incentive payment given the delays on the project beyond the contractor’s control.  There was a disagreement as to whether the completion date could be moved, altered or amended. The trial court held that there was an "egregious ambiguity" in the parties’ contract and allowed extrinsic evidence, including evidence of other contracts, to clarify the issue. The Court of Appeals affirmed [pdf].  The final decision from the Tennessee "Supremes" is expected.

Another Example.  In construing a written contract, the controlling consideration is the intention of the parties as derived from all the terms of the contract. Legally, a written contract to which both parties have assented as a complete and accurate expression of their agreement, may not be varied or contradicted by understandings and negotiations, which occurred prior to signing the contract. Thus, as a general rule, a proposal by a contractor cannot be used to vary or contradict the signed contract.

If the contract is so ambiguous that its meaning is unclear, the court can allow parol or extrinsic evidence to be admitted. A contract is considered ambiguous "when it is reasonably susceptible to more than one meaning." As a result, if the contractor can show that the scope of work specified in the contract is ambiguous, then the contractor’s proposal may be used as extrinsic evidence to explain the meaning of the contract.

Owners (such as TDOT in the case currently on appeal) often argue the language in the scope of work specified in the contract is readily apparent and, therefore, the contractor should not be permitted to introduce its proposal as evidence on the issue of ambiguity. However, a court may conditionally consider extrinsic evidence, including the proposal, for the purpose of determining whether a contract is ambiguous. If the signed contract is reasonably susceptible of two or more meanings, the courts would likely consider the public owner’s interpretation of the scope of work and the contractor’s proposal.

Who Can Help Interpret a Construction Contract?  Using the above two examples, the rules are pretty clear that the court must look only to the four corners of the contract to interpret its provisions. Only where there is an ambiguity can the court look to extrinsic or parol evidence, including other writings, conduct of the parties, and industry practice.

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