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Impossibility and Impracticability

Encyclopedia of Law and Economics, Forthcoming

29 Pages Posted: 28 Jul 2009 Last revised: 8 Nov 2015

Donald J. Smythe

California Western School of Law

Date Written: July 27, 2009


This chapter reviews important contributions to the law and economics literature on the doctrines of impossibility and impracticability. These define conditions under which a party may be granted an excuse from its contractual obligations. The earliest contributions focused on the role of excuse doctrines in promoting efficient risk-bearing. Subsequent studies extended these by incorporating excuse doctrines into more general frameworks for the analysis of contract damages claims, by elaborating on other ways in which courts might affect risk allocations through their applications of excuse doctrines, and by suggesting other ways in which the parties might allocate risks contractually. The most recent contributions have focused on the role of excuse doctrines in long-term contracts. The focus of these studies has been on whether the application of the excuse doctrines will generally impede or enhance parties’ efforts to enforce their agreements autonomously. It seems reasonable to predict that future work in this area is likely to elaborate on the role of the excuse doctrines using theories and methods from behavioral law and economics.

Keywords: Impossibility, Impracticability, Excuse Doctrines, Efficient Risk-Bearing, Long-term Contracts, Relational Contracts

JEL Classification: K00, K12

Suggested Citation

Smythe, Donald J., Impossibility and Impracticability (July 27, 2009). Encyclopedia of Law and Economics, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN:

Donald J. Smythe (Contact Author)

California Western School of Law ( email )

225 Cedar Street
San Diego, CA 92101
United States

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