Companies are suspending or terminating business agreements by relying on a common but rarely invoked escape hatch in the fine print of many commercial contracts, as the new coronavirus and government measures to slow its spread upend the economy.

Known as “act of God” clauses—or “force majeure,” French for “superior force”—the provision has been cited in court cases across the U.S. and around the world in recent weeks by companies large and small—from California developers to global energy firms.

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