Knowing your rights for wedding contracts as pandemic puts weddings in flux

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Engaged couples making difficult decisions about whether to cancel or postpone their weddings are running into disputes with vendors.

Some couples said vendors are not being flexible, even in the midst of this pandemic. 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS looked into what rights a bride and groom have when it comes to breaking a contract with a vendor, such as a venue, caterer or photographer.

"That's where I've lost faith in the whole kind of wedding industry," said Garrett Nevala, of Maple Grove. "I know it is a business and you're there to make money but just the lack of human decency at times has really blown me away."

Nevala and his fiancé Katie Maslowski have been reevaluating their August wedding due to concerns over coronavirus. They originally signed contracts for 170 guests but due to the pandemic, they are not sure they will still host an event of that size.

"We've spoken with our caterer about meeting in the middle possibly, but they said, 'No, you have to pay for the 170 guests.' So we have about $7,000 more owed to them for a wedding that will possibly consist of, if we're lucky, 25 to 50 people at this point," Nevala explained. "This is one of the biggest days of our lives, and we look at these vendors as holding us captive."

Navigating weddings amid the coronavirus pandemic

Attorney Dennis Smith in Maple Grove said he is handling more contract disputes related to weddings than in years past.

"Every element in a contract you can try to fight and have a different outcome," Smith said.

He recommends making sure any event contract includes a clause known as "force majeure."

"Force majeure is a common element of contract law that deals with events that are unforeseen, things that you can't predict at the time of the signing of the document," Smith explained. "The scope and how it's applied will be determined by the courts. That's part of the tricky thing that brides and grooms and companies are trying to figure out right now. We don't have any case law dealing with this because this is a new pandemic that we're dealing with."

That said, Smith believes if a couple signed a wedding contract before the pandemic and that clause is included, they will likely be able to alter their events.

He said, especially if government restrictions are still in place at the time of the wedding, the vendor should lower their minimums accordingly.

If government restrictions have loosened but a couple chooses to downsize for safety reasons, Smith noted, "If there is the force majeure language in the contract, I still think you could get away with the smaller number commitment."

5 EYEWITNESS NEWS also asked Smith about clauses that restrict couples from "posting anything negative" about the vendor.

"If that is written into the agreement, that really is enforceable and you need to make sure you're not disparaging their name in any capacity on any social media," Smith explained. "If you do, you can face a financial penalty. The amount depends on what was said, how many people saw it and the amount of damage it did to the company."

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Smith said it is best to try to settle a disagreement with a vendor on your own but if you can't, damages less than $15,000 can be handled in small claims court and can often be done without an attorney.

"If you feel like the $1,000 or $5,000 is just too much or you feel like you were really treated in a wrongful manner, then you should pursue that because that's what our court systems are for," Smith said.

He said damages over $15,000 would be handled in district court, where it is typically best to have representation.

Nevala and Maslowski said they still plan to get married but, like so many other couples, just do not know exactly how it will look yet.

"It's bittersweet to hear we're not alone but also heartbreaking to know there are many other couples who are going through this right now, in addition to the craziness of life," Maslowski said.

They hope others can learn from their experience with wedding contracts.

"Comb through with a magnifying glass, really looking at what you are signing and kind of know, at this point, anything can happen," Maslowski said.