Saturday, November 1, 2014

Under what circumstances is a contract construed as a matter of law, and extrinsic evidence precluded?


If a written contract has a definite legal meaning, then a court should read the text and construe it as a matter of law without help from a jury. Frost Nat'l Bank v. L & F Distribs., Ltd., 165 S.W.3d 310, 312 (Tex. 2005) (per curiam); Coker v. Coker, 650 S.W.2d 391, 393 (Tex. 1983). When the words on the page suffice, a court should not look outside the document to decide what the parties agreed. J.M. Davidson, Inc. v. Webster, 128 S.W.3d 223, 229 (Tex. 2003). The overriding objective is to "ascertain and give effect to the parties' intentions as expressed in the document." Frost Bank, 165 S.W.3d at 311-12.

However, if a contract is ambiguous, the court should accept parol evidence and can empanel a jury to decide, as an issue of fact, the "true intent of the parties." Coker, 650 S.W.2d at 394-95. A contract is ambiguous if it is open to more than one reasonable reading. Frost Bank, 165 S.W.3d at 312. Deciding whether a contract is ambiguous is itself an issue of law for the court. Webster, 128 S.W.3d at 229.

To determine whether a contract is ambiguous, courts apply standard rules of interpretation. Frost Bank, 166 S.W.3d at 312. These rules require an attempt to harmonize the contract as a whole. Id. An ideal harmonization will not treat any clause as a nullity, and courts generally presume that every provision was intended to have some effect. Heritage Res., Inc. v. NationsBank, 939 S.W.2d 118, 121 (Tex. 1996). Words should be given their ordinary meaning unless it appears from context that they were used in a technical or different sense. Id. Courts should interpret contracts from a utilitarian perspective, keeping in mind the parties' business objectives. Frost Bank, 165 S.W.3d at 312. Absurd, inequitable, or oppressive interpretations are to be eschewed unless they prove unavoidable. Id.

SOURCE: HOUSTON COURT OF APPEALS - No. 01-12-00677-CV - 2/13/2014

The lease unambiguously does not require First Industrial to give Michelin advance notice of the amount of the policy's deductible. See R & P Enters. v. LaGuarta, Gavrel & Kirk, Inc., 596 S.W.2d 517, 519 (Tex. 1980) ("If a written instrument is so worded that a court may properly give it a certain or definite legal meaning or interpretation, it is not ambiguous."). As the contract is unambiguous, our determination of its meaning is a legal conclusion. See Frost Bank, 165 S.W.3d at 312. The trial court correctly disregarded the jury's findings and entered judgment in favor of First Industrial.


See Gilbert Tex. Contr., L.P. v. Underwriters at Lloyd's London, 327 S.W.3d 118, 133 (Tex. 2010) ("If a contract as written can be given a clear and definite legal meaning, then it is not ambiguous as a matter of law.").

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