Procuring through a distributor: Set expectations early!

When procuring goods our clients are sometimes faced with purchasing a good through a third party distributor rather than directly from the manufacturer of the good. An indirect purchase through a distributor can be problematic from a contractual perspective if the distributor is not willing to take full responsibility for all aspects of providing the relevant good (e.g., the delivery, performance, installation, and maintenance of the good, as applicable). Distributors sometimes attempt to avoid providing all of the product representations and warranties that would routinely be provided by a manufacturer of goods. A distributor may be hesitant to provide warranties on a good that it has neither manufactured nor tested itself.

In some such situations, a distributor may seek to share the risks related to the supply of a good by requesting that the purchaser enter into separate agreements with each of the distributor and manufacturer. The agreement with the distributor would identify such things as the products being purchased, pricing, and delivery terms, while the agreement with the manufacturer would address such things as product warranties, specifications, and service or maintenance terms. In our experience one of the primary difficulties of a two contract approach in this type of arrangement is that, unless the risk allocation terms of the two contracts are very carefully drafted and responsibilities are clearly delineated, the result could be that the purchaser is unclear as to which party is responsible for which obligations and risks. If something goes wrong, a purchaser could find itself in a situation in which all parties are pointing fingers at each other because the relevant contracts do not provide sufficient clarity as to which party bears responsibility for a particular type of damage.

The best case scenario from a purchaser’s perspective is for the purchaser to enter into only an agreement with the distributor, rather than agreements with both the distributor and manufacturer. This agreement with the distributor will require the distributor to take full responsibility for all risks related to the good and its supply to the purchaser. If the distributor wants the manufacturer to share responsibility for the good, then the distributor can enter into a separate agreement with the manufacturer to allocate risk between the distributor and manufacturer. This agreement would be separate and apart from the purchase agreement between the purchaser and distributor.

One solution that DDO has used to help avoid debate about what contractual arrangements will be utilized when purchasing through a distributor is to address this issue at the request stage of a procurement. If a purchaser requires, as a condition of participation in its RFP (or other requesting document, as applicable), the distributor to agree that it will be directly accountable to the purchaser for all risks and obligations related to the provision of the required good, then the purchaser can avoid having to negotiate this aspect of the contractual arrangements at a later stage in the procurement process. In this way we find that we can avoid some headaches related to a purchase through a distributor.

Drafting Research Funding Agreements

Innovations in health care are often the result of research and development initiatives. Such initiatives cannot be carried out without funding. Many broader public sector organizations that carry on health-related research in Ontario rely heavily on:

  • partnerships with private sector corporations; and
  • charitable donations from philanthropic individuals and organizations,

to fund their research activities.

If your broader public sector organization receives funds from corporate partners or charitable donors, then you should ensure that the agreements, through which your organization receives such funds, are properly drafted. If not drafted with some forethought, your organization could agree to contractual obligations that conflict with its legislative or regulatory requirements.

For example, a corporate partner that is providing funding to a public hospital for a research initiative may expect that the hospital will utilize the funder’s brand of equipment to carry out the research. However, the purchase of equipment by a public hospital in Ontario must be carried out in compliance with the Broader Public Sector Procurement Directive. A hospital cannot purchase a significant piece of equipment without abiding by fair and transparent procurement processes, unless the procurement falls within an exemption or circumstance of non-application under applicable procurement regulations.

If created with care, a funding agreement could be drafted in a manner that allows a purchasing organization to satisfy conditions imposed on the funds by a funder, while still allowing the purchasing organization to be in compliance with its procurement (and other regulatory) obligations. DDO would be happy to provide advice on options for drafting your organization’s funding agreements.

Conducting Supplier Debriefings

The Broader Public Sector Procurement Directive entitles unsuccessful proponents participating in a procurement valued at $100,000 or more to a supplier debriefing. A debriefing is an opportunity for a proponent to:

  • discuss with the purchaser the strengths and weaknesses of the proponent’s submission in relation to the evaluation criteria of the procurement;
  • ask questions related to the procurement process; and
  • provide feedback on how the procurement process and the purchaser’s practices could be changed or improved.

A purchaser must include in the documents that initiate a procurement details about supplier debriefings, including the process by which a proponent can request a debriefing. A purchaser must provide proponents with at least 60 days following contract award notification to request a debriefing.

A debriefing should be a process that allows both the purchaser and a proponent to gain valuable input from the other. However, if not conducted properly, a debriefing could lead to additional questions or process-related challenges from a proponent, which would likely mean greater costs being incurred by the purchaser for staff time and legal fees.

To ensure that your organization carries out debriefings efficiently, effectively, and in keeping with applicable regulatory and contractual obligations, your debriefing processes should be formalized to ensure consistency and your staff should be educated on restrictions imposed by applicable procurement requirements and contractual obligations.

DDO is experienced in helping our clients to:

  • establish straight-forward and effective processes for addressing debriefing requests;
  • ensure that their staff are up-to-date on current legislative and regulatory requirements related to debriefings;
  • create an agenda for debriefings that will allow for consistency across debriefings and contribute to the (a) equitable treatment of proponents and (b) transparency of the process;
  • formalize document management and record-keeping procedures for debriefings;
  • train procurement staff on leading a debriefing and on identifying questions that are out of scope of a debriefing; and
  • educate staff on the confidentiality obligations that a purchaser owes to the proponents in a procurement process.

If you are interested in DDO providing your organization with advice on debriefings, or if you have any specific questions related to debriefings, please do not hesitate to reach out to me: mgleeson@ddohealthlaw.com

“Best efforts” in a contract means what?

Have you ever signed a contract that imposed an obligation on you to make “best efforts” to achieve something (like obtain a landlord’s consent, or a regulatory approval)? This might seem to be an innocuous turn of phrase with a simple, common sense meaning, but as with so many things in contracts, the words “best efforts” have a particular legal meaning, and it’s surprising how many lawyers, not to mention their clients, have only a vague idea what that meaning is.

That’s not to say that the phrase fails to set off alarm bells with lawyers, amongst whom there is much gnashing of teeth as to the different standards that might be set by a requirement for “best efforts”, compared to merely “commercially reasonable” efforts (or confusing hybrids like “commercially reasonable best efforts”, and similar formulations such as “bona fide efforts”). Part of this stems from confusion, and part from some scary-sounding words in pronouncements of the courts over the years. According to the Common Law, this is what “best efforts” means:

  1. “Best efforts” imposes a higher obligation than a “reasonable effort”.

 

  1. “Best efforts” means taking, in good faith, all reasonable steps to achieve the objective, carrying the process to its logical conclusion and leaving no stone unturned.

 

  1. “Best efforts” includes doing everything known to be usual, necessary and proper for ensuring the success of the endeavour.

 

  1. The meaning of “best efforts” is, however, not boundless. It must be approached in the light of the particular contract, the parties to it and the contract’s overall purpose as reflected in its language.

 

  1. While “best efforts” of the defendant must be subject to such overriding obligations as honesty and fair dealing, it is not necessary for the plaintiff to prove that the defendant acted in bad faith.

 

  1. Evidence of “inevitable failure” is relevant to whether a failure to make best efforts actually caused any damage. The onus to show that failure was inevitable regardless of whether the defendant made “best efforts” rests on the defendant.

 

  1. Evidence that the defendant, had it acted diligently, could have satisfied the “best efforts” test is relevant evidence that the defendant did not use its best efforts.

 

It’s a sometimes dim memory of the phrase “leaving no stone unturned” that causes anxiety and drives lawyers to recommend to their clients that they assume only a duty to make “commercially reasonable” (or “reasonable commercial”) efforts. The fear is that turning over every stone amounts to a legal obligation to bankrupt yourself, if that’s what it takes, but does “best efforts” really mean a party has to go to commercially unreasonable lengths to get the thing done? Note paragraph 2 in the list above – “‘Best efforts’ means taking, in good faith, all reasonable steps…”.

This seems to mean that best efforts and reasonable efforts are one and the same, but it’s hard to take comfort in the “reasonable” language in paragraph 2, since, as set out in paragraph 1, the courts state flatly that “best efforts” imposes a higher obligation than “reasonable efforts”; and while that might seem to be contradicted by the notion of “reasonable” steps, note how, in paragraph 3, the law then equates “reasonable” with “no stone unturned” (no reasonable stone, perhaps?).

It’s to avoid the possibly onerous obligation to “leave no stone unturned” that lawyers recommend their clients assume only an obligation to make “reasonable efforts” instead, and even here, there is doubt, since it isn’t clear that “reasonable” means the same thing as “commercially reasonable” – there’s no guidance from the courts to make that clear. In fact, despite lawyers playing around with all sorts of formulations, such as “reasonable best efforts”, we really only have any degree of certainty about two phrases: “best efforts” and “reasonable commercial efforts”.

Here’s what the Ontario courts have said about “reasonable commercial efforts”:

 

Reasonable implies sound judgment, a sensible view, a view that is not absurd. Commercial means having profit or financial gain as opposed to loss as a primary aim or object. These words impose a standard of reasonable commercial efforts, not one of best efforts or bona fide efforts.

So there you have it. “Reasonable commercial efforts” means efforts that are reasonable in view of the overall objective of coming out ahead in the deal, and that’s different from “best”, from “bona fide”, and maybe from just plain “reasonable”, too, if we are to infer that the word “commercially” also influences the analysis (perhaps “reasonable” equates with “possible”, while “commercially reasonable” means “possible plus not too unprofitable”?). It can all seem like arcane hair-splitting, but as long as the courts are going to insist there’s a distinction, however illogical it might seem upon close reading of their reasons, it does seem prudent to prefer “reasonable commercial efforts” for your own obligations, and “best efforts” for the other side, if they can be persuaded. All other variations should be avoided, however similar they may seem from a practical perspective. We just can’t be sure what a court would do with them.