Jamie and Cody Evanko were excited for their wedding.
The high school sweethearts planned to tie the knot in July 2020, but the coronavirus pandemic dashed the celebration. The venue they had booked for the 200-person reception, Park Chateau in East Brunswick, couldn’t hold the event because of restrictions put in place by the governor.
They rescheduled the event for January 2021, but continued restrictions foiled that date, too.
Now the couple is suing the company in Somerset County Superior Court in an attempt to get back some of the $23,000 they paid to the venue for a big party that never happened.
“We have made every effort to be empathetic and understanding of a business during COVID times, but we do not feel that they have been empathetic or understanding of a young couple trying to begin their life together during these tough times,” said Jamie Evanko, 27, a special education teacher.
Park Chateau and its sister venues — Nanina’s in the Park and the Park Savoy — are the subject of 14 similar lawsuits, public records show.
When the couple booked their wedding back in 2018, the total bill would have been $28,222, adjusted for any changes in the number of guests. They paid a $5,644 deposit on April 2 of that year, with more payments throughout 2019 and into 2020.
When it became apparent that the couple’s initial July 2020 date wouldn’t happen, they agreed to move the wedding to January 2021. But now, they’re grateful that date never happened.
“We are both front line workers during COVID and are exposed on a routine basis,” said Cody Evanko, 29, who works as a police officer. “We were both diagnosed with COVID within approximately a week after our second-scheduled Jan. 28, 2021, wedding date, so we are very glad a reception did not proceed on that date, as we could have unknowingly exposed friends and family, resulting in a `superspreader wedding.”
Rather than continue to reschedule dates that could not be guaranteed because of the ongoing pandemic, the couple tried negotiating to get their money back. They offered for Park Chateau to keep their original $5,644 deposit if it would refund the rest, but the venue refused, the lawsuit said.
Park Chateau said in a statement that since the pandemic began, it, and its sister venues, have rescheduled more than 750 weddings.
“At the same time, we have provided our couples a safe space to have their special day while taking all necessary precautions to stop the virus’s spread,” it said. “When a wedding cannot be held due to COVID restrictions, our mutually agreed upon contract states that we give our couples the next available date at no additional cost.”
“In this case, sadly, we didn’t get a chance to offer future dates due to their attorney’s notice of a lawsuit. We are grateful for the hundreds of couples who have worked cooperatively with us – because they too understand we’re in this together during these unprecedented times. We remain committed to working with all of our couples to provide them with the wedding of their dreams,” the statement said.
The Evanko’s attorney said the contract signed by the couple, which includes a “force majeure” clause, clearly shows they should get most of their money back.
The force majeure clause, which means “superior force” in Latin, addresses “the inability of one or both parties to perform a contract due to unanticipated circumstances outside the control of either party,” attorney George Grochala said, citing a 2007 case where the court sided with a couple who sued their wedding venue after their reception was canceled because the electricity went out.
“In that case, the venue also refused to refund the deposit, claiming that the loss of electricity was not their fault,” he said. “However, the contract had a force majeure clause and, ultimately, the Appellate Division held that the wedding venue was required to refund the deposit, minus any money it actually paid in partial performance.”
“In the present case, there is absolutely no question that the global COVID-19 pandemic, and all of its government-required restrictions, have prevented either party from performing twice in this matter and, hence, requires invocation of the force majeure clause, thereby rescinding the contract and returning the parties to their pre-contract position,” Grochala said.
He says the Evankos are entitled to a full refund of the money they paid, minus anything Park Chateau actually spent to prepare for the reception, “which, as the Evankos understand, was nothing.”
As part of the lawsuit, the couple is accusing Park Chateau of trying to double or triple dip by keeping the Evanko’s funds. The venue and its sister venues received up to $1 million in Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funds and have also filed a class action lawsuit against their insurance company over unpaid claims of a business interruption policy for COVID cancellations, according to the lawsuit and public records.
“Under these circumstances, and as the complaint alleges, it would appear Park Chateau is actually attempting to make a double or triple recovery for money it never expended on behalf of the Evankos, and for which it has already been reimbursed by the federal government and, potentially, its insurance carrier,” Grochala said.
Park Chateau said it used “the PPP money exactly as the federal government intended — to keep our workers employed with health benefits so they could take care of their families while we were closed for six months during the pandemic.” It did not address the business continuation insurance issue.
The couple married this past fall in a small civil ceremony on a Jersey beach, attended by only a few family members. Now they say they are waiting for a jury trial.
“Every newlywed couple deserves a stable start in life. However, the greed displayed by our venue has only left us in the negative — both financially and emotionally,” Cody Evanko said.
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NJ Advance Media Research Editor Vinessa Erminio contributed to this report.
Karin Price Mueller may be reached at [email protected].