The Wedding Lawyer > On the Law and Business of Weddings » Attorney serving wedding vendors and couples in Seattle, Spokane, and throughout Massachusetts.

Wedding Vendors, Make Sure You Respect Settlement Agreements.

A dispute over a broken confidentiality clause in a settlement agreement recently made it to an Illinois appeals court. In Darrow v. Phillips, a wedding photographer had a disagreement with his clients involving a medieval-themed wedding featuring “a falcon as ring bearer.” The wedding was allegedly a disaster resulting in subpar wedding photos, which the photographer claimed was through no fault of his own..

The dispute was initially resolved when the parties signed a settlement agreement that included a confidentiality clause. The wedding photographer allegedly violated the clause when he published a book that included an account of the medieval wedding couple’s wedding. The couple sued for breach of contract.

Although the photographer eventually prevailed, I can all but guarantee that it was at significant expense. The greater lesson to learn is that settlement agreements should not be signed unless a vendor understands all of its implications. Paying a lawyer a few hundred dollars to negotiate and explain any such agreement is obviously a significant savings over having the agreement eventually cost the vendor thousands in subsequent legal fees.


3 Lessons to Learn From Wedding Planner That Stole $15,000

Aleck Bridwell is (was) a Texas wedding planner that just pled guilty as part of a plea deal after facing felony charges in connection with his alleged theft of over $15,000 from a very unfortunate couple. It is a sad story, but not as uncommon as we’d like to think. Wedding vendors are generally a very honest lot. However, there are thousands of us. A small percentage of any group is always going to be lousy. With that in mind, there are three key lessons that Mr. Bridwell can teach us.

  1. In this age where weddings can cost tens of thousands of dollars, couples should seriously consider purchasing wedding insurance. The Wedding Planner from Hell is but a single example of the many things that could conceivably go wrong. Just make sure to discuss exactly what different policies do and don’t cover.
  2. For the sake of both couples and wedding planners, it is best for a couple to pay third-party vendors directly instead of through a wedding planner. Mr. Bridwell is a perfect example of how doing otherwise can go wrong for the couple. From a wedding coordinator’s perspective this is the best way to handle it as well, because–depending on how contracts are worded and promises of payment are construed–in the event that a couple defaults on their obligation to another vendor, that vendor could end up making the argument that they had a contract with the wedding planner instead of the couple.
  3. Never trust an Alec that spells his name “Aleck.” Obviously.

Bridwell’s victims cannot turn back the clock. But if other couples can learn from their story, then perhaps those couples cannot avoid the same fate, or at least minimize the financial damage.


EM Fine Art, Wedding Venues, and Force Majeure Events.

EM Fine Art, a Seattle wedding venue, recently shut down and informed wedding couples that they would not be receiving refunds for any deposits paid. The venue first claimed that it was due to fire damage, but later walked back that claim, and instead asserted that their landlord is canceling their lease. Either way, the venue is invoking the “force majeure” clause it has in its contracts with couples, saying that under the contract language, deposits are not refundable.

I don’t have an opinion on whether that’s true, or whether the couples have a valid legal argument to make in this specific case, because I simply have no idea how the contract reads and also do not know the full facts. But it did get me thinking again about force majeure clauses. I recently wrote a post about Lakeview Pavilion, a Boston-area wedding venue, and how it burned down in early April. In that post I said that couples were likely owed their deposits back. I think my initial analysis may have been wrong.

To briefly summarize the purpose of a force majeure clause, it is meant to relieve a party or parties of their contractual obligation(s) in the event of an “act of God,” i.e. tornado, flood, etc. Unfortunately, many force majeure clauses are too vague and don’t address what happens to non-refundable deposits in the case of a force majeure event. This obviously invites disagreement between wedding vendors and clients with regards to deposits.

I spent yesterday researching case law on force majeure clauses and non-refundable deposits. There were surprisingly few cases on point, and none in Washington or Massachusetts (the two states in which I am admitted to practice law). For that reason, I can’t really offer a strong opinion on how I might expect a court would resolve an instance where the force majeure clause was silent with regard to a deposit. However, the couple of federal and state cases I did find seemed to suggest that non-refundable deposits would indeed be non-refundable after a force majeure event.

Again, this doesn’t mean courts in other jurisdictions would rule the same way. The big takeaway is to make sure, whether you are a client or a vendor, to spell out exactly what happens to any deposits (or other payments already made) in the case of a force majeure event. It’s always best to avoid ambiguity in a contract rather than hope a court interprets things your way.


A Cocktail Named “Disaster.”

Apparently make-your-own cocktail bars are an emerging wedding trend. As I’ve previously touched on before, this is a potentially dangerous idea for brides and grooms (not to mention for any possible victim). Furnishing alcohol for guests to serve themselves is obviously inviting over-indulgence. Under the theory of social host liability, a couple could end up getting sued if an over-served guest leaves the wedding and gets into an accident.

Not all states impose liability on social hosts, but many do. Setting aside moral considerations, if it were me I would not even entertain the idea of a make-your-own cocktail bar without being absolutely certain of the social host liability laws of my state. The potential consequences are too serious.


What can we learn about wedding vendor contracts from this couple’s horror story?

I draft a lot of wedding vendor contracts, and one thing about the work that always makes me nervous is that I know that there is no such thing as a “perfect contract.” Why? Because no contract can ever anticipate every possible way a transaction can go wrong (and any contract that attempted to do so would be impractically long).

Having said that, it is an attorney’s job to try and address the obvious things that can develop into a potential problem. One way to do this is to learn from the painful experiences of other people. To that end, there are several things to be learned from the unfortunate experience of one Australian couple’s wedding.

First, the couple was told (the day of, not in advance) that their band had to stop playing at 8:30 because it was too loud, given that there were residential properties in close proximity. This should prompt couples that are considering wedding reception venues located near residential areas to ask the venue whether or not noise has ever been a problem. A couple might also consider adding contract language that addresses such concerns.

Second, the couple’s bar tab went over the previously agreed upon limit. The facts aren’t entirely clear on this point, but the lesson is obvious. A couples’ contract with the caterer/venue ought to spell out exactly what happens if the liquor bill reaches an agreed upon limit.

Finally, the venue was apparently quite chilly, and for whatever reason, the venue did not turn on the heat. This one is a perfect example of something I doubt I ever would have thought of if I was drafting a wedding venue contract. But again, I can learn from this couple’s story. Perhaps a venue contract should include language about climate control.

The larger point is that contract drafting, for an attorney or a vendor, and contract reviewing/negotiating, for a wedding couple, is in large part an exercise in imagination (this might be a compelling reason to enlist the services of an attorney with experience in such exercises). Because our imaginations are imperfect, our contracts are imperfect. But in order to get as close as we can to perfection, we should learn from others.