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Government Contracts

15 January, 2016 - 09:33

The general rule is that members of the public are only incidental beneficiaries of contracts made by the government with a contractor to do public works. It is not illogical to see a contract between the government and a company pledged to perform a service on behalf of the public as one creating rights in particular members of the public, but the consequences of such a view could be extremely costly because everyone has some interest in public works and government services.

A restaurant chain, hearing that the county was planning to build a bridge that would reroute commuter traffic, might decide to open a restaurant on one side of the bridge; if it let contracts for construction only to discover that the bridge was to be delayed or canceled, could it sue the county’s contractor? In general, the answer is that it cannot. A promisor under contract to the government is not liable for the consequential damages to a member of the public arising from its failure to perform (or from a faulty performance) unless the agreement specifically calls for such liability or unless the promisee (the government) would itself be liable and a suit directly against the promisor would be consistent with the contract terms and public policy. When the government retains control over litigation or settlement of claims, or when it is easy for the public to insure itself against loss, or when the number and amount of claims would be excessive, the courts are less likely to declare individuals to be intended beneficiaries. But the service to be provided can be so tailored to the needs of particular persons that it makes sense to view them as intended beneficiaries—in the case, for example, of a service station licensed to perform emergency road repairs, as in Third party Beneficiaries and Foreseeable Damages , Kornblut v. Chevron Oil Co.


Generally, a person who is not a party to a contract cannot sue to enforce its terms. The exception is if the person is an intended beneficiary, either a creditor beneficiary or a donee beneficiary. Such third parties can enforce the contract made by others but only get such rights as the contract provides, and beneficiaries are subject to defenses that could be made against their benefactor.

The general rule is that members of the public are not intended beneficiaries of contracts made by the government, but only incidental beneficiaries.


  1. What are the two types of intended beneficiaries?
  2. Smith contracted to deliver a truck on behalf of Truck Sales to Byers, who had purchased it from Truck Sales. Smith was entitled to payment by Byers for the delivery. The truck was defective. May Byers withhold payment from Smith to offset the repair costs?
  3. Why is the public not usually considered an intended beneficiary of contracts made by the government?