Is it legal to keep a nonrefundable deposit on a wedding venue in the event of a devastating hurricane?

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Is it legal to keep a nonrefundable deposit on a wedding venue in the event of a devastating hurricane?

Our wedding venue was terribly affected by
Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. We have not
been able to get in touch with the resort to find
out their exact reopening date. We are
concerned it will take many months for them to
get back to us due to the extent of damage
done to the island with no power or cell service.
We have a ‘Force Majeure’ clause in our
contract which includes hurricanes. Can we
use this clause to cancel our wedding and get
our deposit back even if they eventually get
back to us stating they will reopen in time for
our wedding? Our wedding is in 4 months and
it does not look like Puerto Rico is able to
recover and host tourists in that short amount
of time. We would like to look elsewhere while
we still have time rather than waiting weeks if
not months for the resort to get back to us.

Asked on September 28, 2017 under Business Law, Pennsylvania

Answers:

SJZ, Member, New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 3 years ago | Contributor

The problem is that you cannot "pre-emptively" cancel if they tell you that they anticipate being able to host your wedding and provide the services, etc. you contracted for. (I.e. it's one thing if they confirm that they won't be able to to do--in that case, their statement that they would not be ready and/or able would clearly let you out.) In the absence of their statement or admission that they won't be able to have your wedding, you can only cancel if in fact they can't carry through with the wedding. As a practical matter, in this situation, you may need to book another venue then try to get your money back later, if you can show that you would not have been able to have the wedding due to the hurricane--bearing in mind that if they do not want to voluntarily give you the money back, you'd have to sue them and prove in court that they could not have hosted your wedding. If you can't do that--e.g. if they could have hosted it--you will not be entitled to your money. Also bear in mind that while you need to double check *exactly* what your contract says, typically, these clauses only apply to the venue itself: i.e. if the venue is open for business, it doesn't matter if the rest of the island is a shambles. Typically, a contract only applies to the parties themselves, not to what is happening in the broader community.


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