Team 12 Investigation: Pandemic-related event cancellations face major backlog of court cases
Tens of thousands of people lost money when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of weddings, anniversary parties and other events. Now, a backlog in cases means they won't get their day in court anytime soon.
In the spring of 2020, Catherine Martins and Jaleel Taylor were looking forward to celebrating the arrival of their baby, Tristan. So was the grandmother-to-be - Denise Jones.
She offered to pay for a baby shower on May 30 at the Castle in Roselle Park - then, the pandemic hit. Across the tristate area, events of all kinds shut down.
Adding to the disappointment, the venue said it would not offer a refund, nor reschedule the event. It would simply keep the money, saying that under the contract, it was not responsible for events that could not be held due to causes beyond its control.
Senior Investigative Reporter Walt Kane took a closer look at the contract. It says the caterer won't be liable for circumstances beyond its control, but as for keeping Jones' deposit, it says the venue can only do that if she breached the agreement - which she didn't do.
Jones was furious, but when she tried take the caterer to court, she found yet another problem.
"They're so backed up with cases like ours, and even other cases and I'm like, you know, this could be another year or two," Jones says.
Jones isn't alone. Kane In Your Corner took a deep dive into the numbers and found that New Jersey's court system is among the hardest hit in the country.
That's especially true when it comes to special civil cases like Jones', where claims are $15,000 or less.
When the pandemic began, there was a backlog of just 440 cases. The latest numbers, as of the end of June, show there are now over 55,000 cases.
Attorney Michael Galpern says that backlog convinces some consumers to settle for less than they're owed while others simply walk away.
"Consumers and litigants have to weigh not only the inconvenience of bringing a lawsuit, not only the delay and expense in bringing a lawsuit, but the fact that there's going to be significant additional delays because the courts just don't have the resources," he says.
That's true in the rest of the tri-state as well. In Connecticut, the small claims backlog increased by over 145%.
In New York, research from five counties in the News 12 viewing area shows claims went up by over 101%.
Galpern says it took almost a year and a half to get this far behind and it may take that long to dig out.
"We're beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but it's a long, dark tunnel that we've gone through," he says.
It's been almost 15 months since Martins' baby shower was canceled. Tristan is already over 1 year old.
Under New Jersey law, the family has more than four years left to pursue legal action, but like a lot of families in that situation, they're not sure if it's worth it or if they'll simply walk away.
"We're in the circumstance that my event never happened, my son is now here, and now what do I have to show for it? $3,500 that have gone down the drain," Martins says.
Consumer attorneys say check the contract, particularly the cancellation clauses, if your event was canceled due to the pandemic. They also say to be aware that some venues are making lower offers because they know that if you take legal action, it will take you longer to get to court.