In Triton Hardware Limited v. Torngat Regional Housing Association, 2020 NLSC 72, the owners of a construction project (“Torngat”) sought to rely on a privilege clause in the project’s tendering documents to select its preferred bidder, not the lowest bidder. This case serves as a cautionary tale to owners that a general privilege clause does not afford them absolute discretion.

In the case, the plaintiff (“Triton”) made a material supplier bid to Torngat for the construction of a housing project. Triton’s bid was the lowest. Yet, Torngat selected another bidder with whom it had previously worked and preferred. In making this preferential selection, Triton relied on the following clause: The awarding of the contract will be based on the lowest average price for quality material. *The Lowest of Any Quotes Will Not necessarily Be Accepted.

At trial, Knickle J. interpreted the impugned privilege clause as allowing the owner to either select the lowest bidder or to select no bidder at all. The asterisk-qualification did not permit the owner to select from any of the bidders according to undisclosed criteria (para. 63). As a result, Triton was awarded $126,852.14 for its lost profits.

If general privilege causes were not read strictly but, instead, granted owners complete discretion when selecting bidders, the tendering process would be rendered meaningless. As the Supreme Court of Canada established in Martel Building Ltd., v. R., 2000 SCC 60, the tendering process must treat all bidders fairly and equally.

As such, there must be reasonable certainty regarding the terms of selection. If otherwise, all bidders would be prejudiced. That is, the losing bidders would expend resources in producing a hopeless tender, and the winning bidder’s tender would be arbitrarily reduced by fictional market competition.