AUSTIN (KXAN) — Just four days before the Carlisles’ March wedding, Texas Governor Greg Abbott banned gatherings of more than 10 people.
“It’s at your fingertips. You are about to walk down the aisle in just a few days… just to be taken from you,” Amanda Parinella Carlisle said. “Bills were paid, the event was planned. We were actually… our bags were packed.”
She and her fiance Zach had spent 14 months planning their perfect day.
It was set to be held at a venue she says they fell in love with — Remi’s Ridge Hidden Falls in Spring Branch, Texas.
“There’s a beautiful waterfall,” she said.
Walter’s Wedding Estates allowed them to postpone their event at Remi’s Ridge, but they said they had to pick a date before the end of August.
“We figured the farthest away would probably be our best bet,” Zach said.
Now, weddings are allowed at 50% capacity, but with COVID-19 cases surging in Texas, they’re worried again.
“They pretty much told us, unless Zach or myself… got COVID — or the Governor did another state mandate, another shutdown — that we didn’t have a choice, and they were definitely not going to do any refunding,” Amanda explained.
Amanda and Zach decided to go ahead and get married in a small ceremony with their parents, on their original date in March.
They had already paid Walters Wedding Estates in-full for 220 guests. They said a majority of their family is flying in from out town, and may not be able to make it — even on the new date.
They said they’ve asked the venue for a partial refund for the guests that cannot attend. The couple said they were told they can “reallocate the money” to other “enhancements.”
“I don’t need seven other appetizers to make up for my 100 people that don’t get to come,” Zach said.
The couple said it’s really not about they money — they’d prefer to postpone the event again to a time when their loved ones could attend.
In response to their concerns, a manager at the venue told her in an email:
“I completely understand your concern with everything going on about hosting your event with us. But as Nathan had stated, the wedding venue mandate regarding gathering restrictions has not changed and we are currently able to host your event and we have added new safety measures to ensure your event is successful!
We have COVID appropriate signage posted throughout the venue, venue staff will be wearing masks and gloves throughout the entire event, we will have hand sanitizer available at the entrance and bar, and we will keep frequently touched hard surfaces sanitized as well.“
“It doesn’t feel like they care about our families or what our guests would have to go through,” she said, adding that she feels forced to hold an event where someone could be exposed.
Hailey Suggs, a civil litigation associate at Graves Dougherty Hearon & Moody in Austin, said most vendors and couples are working together to postpone or compromise, while others are taking it to court.
“I definitely could see that event cancellation litigation will increase,” Suggs said. “I think it’s totally possible we will see more of these lawsuits.”
Texas court records reveal at least 15 lawsuits filed over wedding contract disputes.
KXAN investigators found three filed against Walters’ Wedding Estates — the company that operates Remi’s Ridge at Hidden Falls and a dozen other venues across the state.
One lawsuit alleges “intentional infliction of emotional distress” and “deceptive trade practices” by Walters Wedding Estates, when they “refused to reschedule when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.”
Another lawsuit claims fraud, arguing the company “failed to disclose it could not perform on a wedding date in July because of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Rachel Johnson, Director of Marketing at Walters Wedding Estates told KXAN, “Never in a million years could any of us have guessed 2020 would be the year of a global pandemic, and we are genuinely heartbroken that it has disrupted plans for our couples. Our hearts go out to so many who have been looking forward to their wedding day, only to be confronted with the reality of changing their plans – many last minute – due to unprecedented circumstances out of everyone’s control.”
Johnson noted 500 wedding ceremonies or receptions have been affected at their properties.
“For vendors, time is money too,” Suggs said, explaining that’s why most vendors insist on having contracts in place.
She thinks the outcome of most lawsuits or disputes would depend on how much work the vendor had already put into the event.
“Yes, this is one of the most special days in somebody’s life,” she said. “But the vendor is maybe losing out on 12, 14, 15, 16 weddings at this point, and that’s their livelihood. If you have couple after couple cancelling and not postponing, so you can keep that deposit, that’s going to be really hard on a small business, a local business to keep the lights on while weddings are not taking place.”
Suggs also noted that many contracts contain a “force majeure” clause, for unforeseeable circumstances preventing a party from fulfilling the agreement. However, she said this clause might not always cover a pandemic, if not explicitly stated.
She urges consumers to take notice of deposit and postponement policies before signing any contracts, as well as the rules in place on giving notices to vendors.
Amanda and Zach said they do not plan to take any legal action, but they want other couples to be aware before they sign contracts in the future
Amanda says, “I know there’s a piece of paper, but there’s also what’s right in the heart for somebody to do.”
Johnson at Walters Wedding Estates said, “We are committed to helping all of our couples whose event is impacted by COVID by exploring a range of contingency plans and celebrating safely together.”
According to Johnson’s team, they are asking couples to be flexible in “re-imagining the logistics of your special day should health & safety mandate social distancing norms.”
They’ve also encourage their customers to re-allocating non-refundable wedding fees towards things like more time at the venue, enhanced bar or catering packages and selections, a late-night snack for guests or more lodging options.
Johnson said their company is also asking couples to revisit their event insurance.
“We’ve highly recommended for several years now that couples invest in event insurance,” Johnson said. “Even though most insurance companies do not cover COVID-19 specifically, there are some that are working with couples during this time with other resolutions.”