Question:
I am a project manager for the employer on a power plant project based in Europe. We have been on quite good terms with the contractor up until now. Last week the contractor sent us a claim for 12 weeks’ delay to the programme and for compensation costs (we are using the FIDIC Yellow Book (Plant and Design Build) 1999 form and English governing law). They are saying that dealing with contamination in the ground discovered in the last few weeks will cause a delay. We had a couple of site meetings with the contractor and sub-contractor about the programme and the potential delays, prior to the contractor sending the claim. I have two issues with the claim: firstly, we do not believe that the ground conditions will cause 12 weeks’ delay; our estimate would be closer to about 6 weeks. Secondly, the contractor’s written notice of claim is just a couple of lines in an email to me and I am not sure this counts as proper “notice”.
I do not want to jeopardise our relationship with the contractor, but obviously I am concerned to limit our exposure to any delay costs. I would appreciate any advice about how we can deal with this claim from our contractor.

Answer:
Let’s start by considering whether or not the contractor has given valid notice of the claim. In fact, even before we come onto that, I should just touch on whether or not the contractor has a claim in the first place. You do not say that you are disputing the existence of the pollution nor that it was “Unforeseeable” for the purposes of the contract (for the benefit of others reading this, “Unforeseeable” and “physical conditions” are defined in the FIDIC Yellow Book as not reasonably foreseeable by an experienced contractor by the date for submission of the tender and “physical conditions” means “natural physical conditions and man-made and other physical obstructions and pollutants which the contractor encounters at the Site when executing the Works”). Therefore as ground pollutants are expressly covered, I assume that you accept that the contractor has encountered unforeseeable physical conditions at the site which in principle give it the right to claim an extension of time and payment of costs under Sub-Clause 4.12.4 of the contract.
But Sub-Clause 4.12.4 makes that right to claim expressly subject to Sub-Clause 20.1. Sub-Clause 20.1 sets out strict time-limits for giving notice. Again, you do not say that the contractor’s notice was given late so I am assuming that you accept that it was given on time but I suggest that you check this carefully anyway. As a reminder, 20.1 requires the notice to be given as soon as practicable, and not later than 28 days after the contractor became aware, or should have become aware, of the event or circumstance giving rise to the delay. Note that this is days, not business days. You say that the pollution was discovered in the last few weeks so timing could be pretty tight. However, it is worth bearing in mind whether the Contractor has in fact given valid notice before the email. 20.1 talks about the notice needing to make a claim for extension of time and costs under Sub-Clause 20.1 and describe the event or circumstance giving rise to the claim. So the contractor can potentially fulfil this requirement in just a couple of lines and it is also not clear that he even has to issue this in a separate notice (i.e. separate from communications on other matters such as Programme, progress of Works, etc). Could any previous correspondence/documentation issued to the Engineer conceivably satisfy this requirement?
Also, significantly, I note that the email was sent to you. Was the Engineer copied in as well? Clause 20.1 actually requires the notice to be sent to the Engineer. You need to find out when, if at all, the Engineer received the notice and whether or not this was before the 28 day deadline. It is also worth checking whether your particular contract provides for notice formalities and whether this precludes email. FIDIC unamended simply says that notices shall be in writing and delivered by hand, mail or courier “or transmitted using any agreed system of electronic transmission as stated in the Appendix to Tender”. So you need to check this to see if email is allowed.
Sub-Clause 20.1.2 sets out quite clearly what is the effect of a failure to comply with this timescale: the contractor will not be entitled to any extension of time or costs and the employer will be discharged from all liability in connection with the claim.
In addition to the initial notice, the contractor must send to the Engineer a fully detailed claim which includes full supporting particulars of the basis of the claim and of the extension of time and/or additional payment claimed, in accordance with Sub-Clause 20.1.5. This must be sent within 42 days after the contractor became aware/should have been aware of the event or circumstances giving rise to the claim, unless any other period has been agreed between the contractor and the Engineer. The contractor is also obliged to keep such contemporary records as may be necessary to substantiate any claim (Sub-Clause 20.1.4). You will need to check whether or not these further obligations have been complied with in time.
Turning to your other issue with this claim – the length of the delay claimed by the contractor. As you know, the Engineer can respond with “disapproval” or with “detailed comments” if he considers that the delay claimed is too long. He can also request any necessary further information to help him assess the claim, but note that he must respond on the principles of the claim within the time limit set out in Sub-Clause 20.1.6, namely 42 days after receiving the claim or any other period he has agreed with the contractor. For that reason I am hoping that the Engineer’s assessment is well underway and even though there are queries about the validity of the claim, you need to make sure that this is the case.
Of course, he will also need to comply with Sub-Clause 3.5 (Determinations) which means he has to consult with both employer and contractor firstly to try and reach an agreement. This will be your opportunity to put forward your case for any notice non-compliances and regarding the length of delay impact. If the parties don’t agree he makes a “fair determination”. If at this point, you don’t agree with this determination it is always open to you to invoke the dispute resolution procedure and seek the decision of the Dispute Adjudication Board if there is one in your Contract.
To sum up, the contractor has to overcome several hurdles relating to the form, content and timing of the notice in order to benefit from its entitlements resulting from delays due to unforeseeable physical conditions. You will need to review the notice carefully against the contractual requirements referred to above and consider whether all the information has been provided in time, in the right format, to the right people. Given the clear language of Sub-Clause 20.1 it would be hard for the contractor to argue that compliance with clause 20.1.1 is not a condition precedent – i.e. if it does not comply, it cannot benefit from the relief. This strict approach was in fact adopted in a recent Scottish case. You may find that the contractor has not submitted a valid claim at all.  Concurrently, the Engineer will need to continue his assessment of the claim and preparation of his response in relation to the length of delay.

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