With Hurricane Irene moving up the Atlantic coast of the U.S., the lawyer in me can’t help but consider the business and legal implications for the event professionals in that region of the country who may have events scheduled for this weekend. If you’re one of those event pros, right now you’re probably focusing on comforting your panicking brides, or working on plan B (or C or D) to be sure you’re ready for Irene’s approach. But do you know (and understand) what your client contract says about such scenarios? And even if you’re not affected by Irene, do you know what would happen if you were faced with a natural disaster like a hurricane, earthquake, flooding or wildfires that prevents you from performing your job?
Hopefully you have a written client agreement spelling out your services, payments terms, and other terms and conditions. If you’re still one of the few working with handshake agreements, back and forth emails, etc., I urge you to consider putting it all on paper and having all parties involved sign the agreement. For what I’m guessing (hoping?) is the majority of wedding and event industry professionals, you have some sort of written contract that may include a clause entitled “Force Majeure” or “Acts of God.” Force majeure literally means “greater force” in French, and is used to refer to unexpected events that are not caused by the parties to the agreement, such as natural disasters, wars, riots, fires and government restrictions such as those affecting export/import and necessary licenses. If your contract does not have a force majeure clause, now would be a great time to add one!
So what does the force majeure clause mean for you and your business? This can depend on the exact language, and what kind of obligations are specified for each party. In the most general sense, it states that no party to the contract (the event professional or the clients) can be held legally responsible for failing to perform their duties under the contract if that failure is caused by a force majeure event (natural disaster, war, government restriction, etc.). It also states that neither party can terminate the contract because of the force majeure event, so this would prevent your clients from trying to get out of the contract to avoid paying you any fees owed. Sometimes a force majeure clause will specify what steps each party will take to remedy the situation before, during, or after a force majeure occurrence, but often this language is omitted. Practically speaking, you may still be left with questions about how to enforce the clause or deal with the situation. Yes, you might be excused from non-performance this weekend if Irene bears down on your clients’ Virginia Beach wedding, but what if the couple decides to reschedule their wedding for next month? As their wedding planner, would you be required to find them a new venue, reschedule all of the vendors, re-book room blocks, and deal with the general fallout from a canceled event? Based on the exact language of the force majeure clause, you would not be obligated to do any of these things unless your contract language specifically states that you will do these things. However, there are of course ethical considerations and your business reputation to consider. I’m sure that most of you would go above and beyond to help your clients if they were faced with a natural disaster on their wedding day, but the exact manner in which you handle the scenario will likely be situational, and based on the exact set of circumstances and the kind of goods and/or services you contracted to provide. You may already have a wedding scheduled on their rescheduled date, but perhaps one of your assistants could step in as the lead, or you could help your clients find a replacement. While you may not be obligated to do so, you might decide to refund a portion of your fee in order to help your clients out. A word of caution on this: if you do decide to offer any kind of refund, you should always put together a short release agreement stating that by accepting this money, the clients agree that you will have no additional responsibilities or liability in connection with the original service agreement.
For those of you in the areas threatened by Hurricane Irene, please stay safe!