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Primat Construction CC / Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan Municipality (1075/2016) [2017] ZASCA 73 (1 June 2017)

7 August 2017

The case dealt with the issue of whether a party to a contract, who has elected not to accept a repudiation of the Contract by the other party, may, in the face of persistent and unequivocal intention of the other not to be bound, change its stance and cancel and sue for damages for breach of contract.

The facts of the matter were as follows:

  1. The parties had entered into a contract, pursuant to a tender, in terms of General Conditions of Contract for Construction Works (2004), for the upgrade of roads in Motherwell, Port Elizabeth and Primat was required to attend to the reconstruction of the road and supply materials;
  2. The works were scheduled to commence in April 2010 and end in November 2010, however, as a result of delays including severe storm damage, late payment of an insurance claim to Primat for the damage and non-payment by the Municipality against monthly payment certificates, the completion date was therefore extended to November 2011;
  3. As a result of the non-payment of their certificates, Primat suspended the work. The Employer was not happy with the suspension and wrote to Primat purporting to terminate the contract with immediate effect. It is common cause that the letter did not constitute a proper termination and Primat argued that the letter amounted to a repudiation of the contract by the Municipality and such repudiation was not accepted by Primat.
  4. The Municipality maintained that the contract was terminated and requiring Primat to vacate the site. Primat was adamant that they intend to remedy any alleged breaches by it but they were denied access to the site and despite their continued engagement with the municipality, the Municipality insisted that the contract had been terminated and that they will procure other contractors to finish off the works.
  5. As a result of the Municipality’s persistence that the contract had been terminated, Primat gave notice of its election to now accept such repudiation and cancelled the contract and that they intend to sue for damages in the sum of R22 million.
  6. The Municipality argued that once Primat elected not to accept the repudiation, it was precluded from changing its election and could not therefore cancel and claim damages.

The court found that:

  1. Generally, an aggrieved party must choose between the different remedies and is bound by his or her election. The remedies are inconsistent. The choice of one excludes the other, he cannot approbate and reprobate. Once he has elected to pursue one remedy, he is bound by his election and cannot resile from it without the consent of the other party (Bekazazu Properties (Pty) Ltd v pam Golding Properties (Pty) Ltd 1996 (2) SA 537 (C ) at 542E-F);
  2. However, the court held that the Municipality’s argument failed to take account of the fact that the doctrine of election is not inviolable. An aggrieved party is allowed to claim in the same action specific performance and in the event of non-compliance, cancellation and damages. The aggrieved party gives the defaulting party the opportunity to repent and if the defaulting party refuses or fails to perform, the aggrieved party should then be entitled to change its election, and cancel and claim damages. despite the opportunity to relent, the aggrieved party may elect to cancel;
  3. Where the defaulting party is clearly determined not to purge the breach, and shows an unequivocal intention not to be bound by the Contract, the aggrieved party may abandon his or her futile attempt to claim performance and change the election, claiming cancellation and damages.
  4. The Municipality argued that to allow a change of election would negate the fundamental principle that on breach, an aggrieved party must make an election and is then bound by it.

The court found that, the Municipality persisted in its repudiation and showed in no uncertain terms that it would not comply with its obligations and would not allow Primat to continue to perform. The court confirmed that Primat was therefore entitled to change its election and proceed to cancel the contract and claim damages.

This case highlights a very important point. Had the court confirmed the Municipality’s stance, Primat would be stuck with a contract where they are not able to perform and remedy the alleged breach and sustaining damages that they cannot recover which would not make any sense at all.