Brooke Schwartz signed more than a dozen contracts for her March 28 wedding.
The venue, catering, alcohol, wedding planner, videographer, photographer, lighting, limo, hair and makeup, flowers and decor, hotel accommodations and the officiant. Even late-night snacks and a gelato cart.
All adding up to tens of thousands of dollars.
But the coronavirus pandemic prompted Schwartz and fiancé Riley Breese, who live in Lake View, to tell their 200 guests they were calling off their wedding last Sunday.
Still, they were lucky. None of the vendors invoked a “no refunds” policy. And all let her reschedule the big event, which took a year to plan.
“Fortunately, our vendors were awesome,” says Schwartz, 28, who rescheduled for summer. “There was not a single person who said, ‘Nope, can’t do it.’ ”
Others might not be so fortunate, though. The nation’s immediate focus has been on staying safe. But, as time drags on, people and businesses are sure to end up in court over disputes that arise when an event couldn’t be held or a trip had to be canceled because of the virus.
“There will be a lot of litigation,” says attorney Barbara Muller, who specializes in corporate and commercial law.
Depending on the situation, some might have a strong case for a refund. In situations involving, say, event or meeting cancellations in Illinois, consumers could argue “impossibility” — they couldn’t hold up their end of their contracts because the government ordered them not to congregate in large groups.
“The entire purpose of me renting [a wedding hall], this is completely defeated — that would be the argument that the bride makes,” Muller says.
That might seem common sense. But there’s no way to know how judges might rule. There’s little to compare this outbreak to in recent history, and some judges might hew to the strict language of contracts.
Many contracts contain “act of God” or “force majeure” clauses covering unavoidable catastrophes. Such clauses usually define circumstances that would be covered, such as tornadoes, earthquakes, floods or similar disasters.
But most contracts don’t give a specific out for global pandemics. A judge could decide that a viral pandemic isn’t similar to an earthquake and a sophisticated person perhaps should have foreseen the possibility of a pandemic after SARS in 2003 and Ebola in 2014, says Texas commercial litigation attorney Joshua M. Sandler, who has been advising clients about the canceled South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.
“Is a global pathogen considered an act of God? That could go either way,” Sandler says.
If the pandemic prompted the government to shut down your event or disrupt your purchase, you’re probably on firmer ground, he says.
In some cases, insurance could help. Schwartz, the Lake View bride, bought cancellation and postponement insurance for $500 for peace of mind.
Some contracts and insurance policies are broad — for example, trip insurance covering cancellations “for any reason.” Others limit refunds to a narrow set of circumstances.
David B. Goodman, founder of the Goodman Law Group in Chicago and an expert on insurance litigation, says consumer contracts often are written to protect the seller, not the buyer.
One of Goodman’s clients recently was struggling to obtain a refund for his son’s canceled school trip to Europe. The tour operator insisted the contract allowed it to give vouchers and not cash refunds.
Looking at the fine print, it was clear that even a pandemic wouldn’t require cash refunds, Goodman says.
“The documents, up front, had anticipated a circumstance like this and provided for themselves some relief, so it’s hard to challenge that,” he says.
The same tour operator also sold trip insurance that, it turns out, won’t cover pandemic-related cancellations, either. A consumer could argue that was a deceptive business practice — but would need to consider whether that would be worth filing a lawsuit.
Having a president, governor, mayor or school district make your event impossible by closing a border or shutting down gathering places is one thing. It would be murkier legally to pursue a claim for cancellations consumers choose to make in the name of following current medical advice.
John and Julia Lynch of North Center had planned to take their three sons to Arizona this month to see the Cubs in spring training and to see some basketball and hockey games. They booked five tickets on United Airlines, using 325,000 in miles they’d accumulated over a decade with their MileagePlus-branded credit card. They paid an $11.20 fee for each ticket, totaling $56.
But when all pro sports leagues canceled or postponed everything and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised people to stay home, the Lynches canceled.
They were shocked to get a notice from United that, for putting the miles back in their account, it would charge them a $125 restocking fee — on each ticket, a total of $625, a markup of nearly 1,100%.
“It’s outrageous,” John Lynch says. “It’s not anything that requires any effort. The Catholic Church is canceling Mass, but you’re going to stick us with a fee to cancel a free flight?”
After a Chicago Sun-Times reporter contacted United, the airline told the family it would allow them to cancel the flights and reschedule within a year without having to redeposit the miles and incur the fee. And if their new itinerary uses fewer miles, they can keep the extra miles in their account at no extra charge.
The family accepted.
In such situations, consumers are at the mercy of the company and should ask for an exception, experts say. Many corporations are bending their rules during the COVID-19 pandemic, waiving fees for cancellations or changes.
In coming weeks, consumers will be wondering about everything from whether their health club fees should be prorated (some closed clubs are doing this on their own) to whether their kids’ college dorm payments should be partially refunded (some schools are considering this) to whether they deserve a break on car insurance for not driving as much (consumer groups are calling for discounts).
In some instances, such as with nonrefundable hotel rooms bought through a discount site, the consumer could end up having to eat the loss, says Michigan attorney Daniel H. Minkus, an expert on business and real estate law. That’s because it’s still possible to go to the hotel and use the room — as long as the hotel remains open. People chose to bear the risk when they clicked on the “no-refunds” purchase, Minkus says: “In all likelihood, the consumer is going to get stuck.”
Still, experts say companies should be mindful they’ll need to win customers back after this crisis ends. Shoppers can have long memories, and a little good will can go a long way.
Businesses might be able to lean on their own insurance policies to help cover losses for cancellations, depending on how broadly the policies are written.
Along with other ways our lives have been changed, the coronavirus might shift how we view all of the transactions we make. Whether it’s a printed sales contract or checking a box agreeing to terms and conditions, many consumers blithely make purchases without reading any of it.
“You have to think: What does it really mean? What are we accepting?” Goodman says.