Understanding the United Nations Convention on Contracts for the International Sale of Goods

Background on the CISG

The United Nations Convention on Contracts for the International Sale of Goods (“CISG”) is an international treaty that governs most sales of goods between a buyer and seller that reside in different countries, if those countries have adopted the CISG. It has been adopted in the US and more than 70 other countries. In fact, signatory countries account for more than two-thirds of all goods moving in international trade and encompass a majority of the world’s population. Significant trading partners that have adopted the treaty include Mexico, China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, most of Western Europe (excluding Great Britain) and Canada.

In the United States, the sale of goods between businesses is generally governed by state-adopted versions of Article 2 of the Uniform Commercial Code (“UCC”). When contracting parties in the U.S. agree to terms, the UCC serves as a backdrop, filling certain gaps that the parties may have failed to address, establishing certain standards on warranties and disclaimers, etc. The CISG performs a similar role in an international transaction, but differs from the UCC in important ways. Set forth below is a brief summary of some of the key aspects of the CISG, as well as differences between the UCC and the CISG.

When the CISG Applies

As noted above, the CISG applies to the sale of goods between parties residing in different jurisdictions that have adopted the CISG. The CISG, however, does not apply to sales (1) of consumer goods; (2) by auction; (3) of securities or negotiable instruments; (4) of ships, vessels, or aircraft; or (5) electricity. The CISG is also not applicable to so-called “assembly contracts” where the party that orders goods to be manufactured supplies a substantial part of the materials necessary for such manufacture or production of the goods.

It is important to note that when applicable, the CISG is likely to apply unless expressly disclaimed in the contract. Case law suggests, for example, that if you are selling equipment to a Canadian buyer and your contract says something to the effect of, “the parties agree that the laws of Wisconsin will govern this transaction, except the conflict of law provisions therein,” the CISG will still likely trump Wisconsin law unless the contract goes on to state expressly that the CISG does not apply.

Differences between the CISG and the UCC

Should you care if the CISG applies? It depends. But you should know what you are agreeing to so you can make a reasonable choice.

CISG Applies to Oral Contracts

One significant difference between the CISG and the UCC is that the UCC limits the enforceability of oral contracts. The CISG states that a contract of sale need not be evidenced by writing and is not subject to any other requirement as to form. A contract may be proven by any means, including witnesses. Furthermore, in the absence of a specific clause to the contrary, the CISG generally permits oral amendments or modifications to contracts.

Battle of the Forms

The CISG and UCC also differ in their approaches to the “battle of the forms.” Under the UCC, a final form that is not intended specifically as a counteroffer will act as an acceptance, even though it contains different or additional terms to those contained in the prior form. The additional terms are considered as proposals for additions to the contract and, as between merchants, become part of the contract, unless (1) the offer expressly limits acceptance to the terms of the offer; (2) the terms materially alter the offer; or (3) notification of objection to the terms already has been given or is given within a reasonable time after notice has been received.

The CISG departs from the UCC approach and, instead, says a reply to an offer that purports to be an acceptance but contains material additions, limitations or other modifications is a rejection of the offer and constitutes a counteroffer. Thus, at least prior to performance, either party may be able to claim successfully that no enforceable contract exists under the CISG. After delivery and acceptance, a contract will undoubtedly be deemed to have existed. Although the terms of the contract may be subject to dispute, the CISG generally favors the last party to submit materially different terms.

Disclaimer of Warranties Less Formal Under the CISG

The UCC and the CISG have similar provisions for warranties, but the requirements to disclaim warranties differ. The CISG contains no provisions comparable to the disclaimer procedures that sellers may use under the UCC. For example, under the UCC, an effective disclaimer of the implied warranty of merchantability generally must mention “merchantability” and must be in conspicuous writing. Similarly, an effective disclaimer of an implied warranty of fitness must be in writing and conspicuous. The CISG is less formalistic and appears to permit disclaimers of warranties as long as the “parties have agreed” in writing or orally.

UCC Follows the “Perfect Tender” Rule

Under the UCC, a buyer is generally entitled to reject goods that fail in any respect to conform to the contract. This is known as the “perfect tender” rule. Under the rule, generally speaking, a buyer may in good faith reject goods and cancel the contract, even if a defect in tendered goods is not serious and the buyer would have received substantially the goods for which it bargained. The CISG departs from the perfect tender rule and makes rejection or cancellation more difficult. The buyer may void a contract only if the failure by the seller to deliver goods constitutes a fundamental breach. Under the UCC, the buyer has a reasonable opportunity to inspect the goods. However, under the CISG, the buyer must inspect the goods within as short a period as is practicable under the circumstances.

CISG Has a “Self-Help” Remedy

The CISG allows for many of the same damage remedies as those available under the UCC. Generally, a buyer may claim damages if the seller fails to perform. Under the CISG, damages typically equal the loss suffered as a consequence of the breach, including the loss of profit. These types of damages are similar to the direct, incidental, and consequential damages available under the UCC. However, the CISG includes a novel unilateral price reduction remedy: if the goods do not conform with the contract, the buyer may reduce the price. This self-help remedy is not available if the seller is able to cure non-conformity without causing unreasonable delay or inconvenience to the buyer.

Conclusion

Whether you will be helped or hurt by the CISG depends on the circumstance. In the ever-increasing world of global trade, however, buyers and sellers should be aware that it will likely apply unless expressly disclaimed and it will impact how their contract for the sale of goods is enforced. Detailed information about the CISG can be found at the website of the Institute of International Commercial Law at Pace University School of Law: http://www.cisg.law.pace.edu.

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