COVID-19 canceled many planned events. What rights do customers have to a refund?

The coronavirus pandemic has caused thousands of people to have to cancel large events, social gatherings and travel plans.
Many of these plans required some type of deposit or down payment, and a common complaint from customers is that they are not able to get a refund after the plans were canceled.
Nora Green had planned a Sweet 16 birthday party for her daughter Maddie. It was set for this weekend at the Sea Oaks Country Club in Little Egg Harbor, New Jersey. But the pandemic changed the plans.
 
“It’s not feasible to reschedule because she’s already turned 16. Times are crazy. I don’t think people would even be able to come to the party at this point,” says Green.
Green requested a refund and the venue agreed to give her one at first.
“I was checking my mailbox. I figured they’d send me a check,” she says.
But the check never came. Instead, Sea Oaks management sent another email saying that they were under “tremendous economic strain.” The venue stated that it would be happy to reschedule the event. “Cancellation will only be taken into consideration subject to…arranging a like and suitable replacement event.”
But Green says that she found this unacceptable.
“My daughter isn’t interested at this point. She’s already 16. She doesn’t want to have a Sweet 16 a year from now,” says Green.
The Green family is not alone. News 12’s Walt Kane has received many phone calls and emails from people who have had to cancel weddings, vacations and other plans and aren’t being offered refunds.
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So, what are the consumer’s rights when it comes to this? A consumer attorney weighs in.
“Overall, what I’m seeing in all of the contracts I’m reviewing is that this type of problem is not covered, not addressed,” says attorney Craig Kimmel, of the law firm Kimmel and Silverman.
Kimmel says that whether it is a special event, a summer vacation rental or concert ticket, a lack of specific information in the contract usually benefits consumers.
“The law looks at the contract and says, ‘Who wrote the contract?’ Any terms that are ambiguous are interpreted against the writer of that contract,” says Kimmel.
Kimmel’s advice is to check the contract. A customer may have to reschedule the event, but they should be offered a date of equal or greater value. If not, they should be compensated for the difference or be allowed to cancel.
Customers may have a strong case for a refund if the contract mentions it as an option. And if the business can’t offer a suitable replacement date, or if the original date is critical – such as with a Sweet 16?
“In most circumstances, when pressed, the courts are going to look at that and say, ‘Look Mr. Catered Event, you cashed a check for a date you can’t provide,’” says Kimmel.
Kimmel says that contracts may require all disputes to go to arbitration, which means the customer may not be able to take legal action. Attorneys say that it is something a customer needs to consider in advance before signing the contract.
As for the Green family, a representative from the Sea Oaks Country Club tells News 12 that the Greens and other customers “will be made whole on their deposits shortly.”
News 12 will be sure to follow up.