Judge rules against Aspen Skico’s bid to toss wedding lawsuit
A judge on Thursday ruled against Aspen Skiing Co.’s bid to dismiss a lawsuit alleging the company would not refund a family their down payment on a wedding event they canceled due to pandemic restrictions that included an indoor vaccination-requirement and a mask mandate.
District Judge Denise Lynch’s order emphasized she was not drawing any legal conclusions in her decision to deny Skico’s motion-to-dismiss complaint. Lynch, however, noted the family’s claims related to the dispute were plausible when viewed in the “light most favorable to the plaintiff,” which meant she could not dismiss them at this stage of litigation.
The suit from Iowans Cynthia Baxter and her daughter Kayla said they booked a wedding ceremony and reception at the Skico-owned Little Nell Hotel for June 2022. To cement the wedding date, they gave Skico a down payment of $58,257, half of the event’s estimated cost, in September 2021.
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The mother and daughter, however, canceled the wedding in December 2021, after public health restrictions were announced. Skico announced in October that all people entering Skico-owned properties, including the Little Nell, would be required to wear masks and those at least 12 years old would be required to produce proof of a COVID-19 vaccination.
Likewise, Pitkin County in November, citing the surging delta variant, issued a mask mandate and an accompanying demand holding business, including hotels, to 50% of their capacity.
Those aspects of the lawsuit are not in dispute. The disagreement is over the family and Skico’s interpretations of a key provision in the contract.
According to the “force majeure” clause in the Little Nell wedding agreement, canceling the event for “any reason beyond the Hotel’s or Client’s reasonable control” — such as labor strikes, disasters, acts of terrorism, and other emergency conditions — would exempt the parties from their contractual obligations, with deposits returned or applied to a rebooked event.
Skico filings have argued the clause was not triggered and the cancellation policy did not require a deposit refund. The county’s public health order concerning 50% capacity also did not take effect after all, making it neither “impossible” nor “illegal” to hold the wedding event, according to Skico filings.
The family’s lawsuit has contended it would have been illegal for some of the invitees to attend because they objected to being jabbed with the COVID-19 vax.
“Some guests, including the groom’s family, are and were opposed to being vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus. (Skico’s) policies and/or the Public Health Order would have made it illegal for these participants and guests to participate in the wedding ceremony, reception, and related activities as contemplated by the contract,” the suit said.
Lynch rejected Skico’s argument that the family wasn’t forced to call off the wedding, adding that other health restrictions from “both the Public Health Order and Defendant itself required the wearing of masks. Defendant also imposed a requirement that all people attending the wedding had to be vaccinated.”
The judge also did not buy Skico’s argument that the breach-of-cancellation policy count should be dismissed because the contract didn’t require it to return the entire refund or apply it to a new wedding date.
Lynch used essentially the same reasoning by ruling against Skico’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit’s claims breach of contract, breach of implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing: She was not in the position at this point of the proceedings to say that the clause was not triggered. That decision falls on the “finder of fact,” which in this case means a jury.
“If the finder of fact concludes that the contract was terminated under the force majeure section, then arguably, the entire deposit should have been returned or applied to the new wedding date. In any case, dismissal of the breach of contract claim would be inappropriate at this time and the request is denied,” the judge’s order said.
Skico’s motion also lobbied for dismissal of the lawsuit’s claims for unjust enrichment, negligent representation and fraud in the inducement. The judge said they also were plausible enough to survive this round of litigation.
According to the lawsuit’s allegations, the family canceled the June wedding with the understanding their deposit would be credited to their rebooked wedding date. Skico, the suit alleges, set a June 2023 deadline for a future wedding date. The family objected to the deadline and negotiated an August 2023 date with Skico. Again, they canceled the wedding, after Skico said it would not be applying the deposit to the newly booked event, according to the suit.
Skico countered in a filing that it had “no contractual obligation to work with (the Baxters) to rebook the Event following their decision to cancel and had no obligation to refund or apply any portion of the Deposit to a new date.”
Skico stuck to its no-comment policy on active litigation, and the Denver law offices of San Francisco-based Gordon & Rees Scully Mansukhani LLP, which filed the suit, did not respond to a message seeking comment.
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