Bridal despair: Has she really lost $500?

A deposit– even a small one– can be frustrating to lose. But when the deposit in question is $500, emotions tend to run a bit hotter than frustration. Even so, this week's contretemps is one of the fiercest I've encountered.

Our story begins on August 7, 2003, when Harris Tobias and his wife reserved Prospect Hill, a bed and breakfast in Trevilians, for their daughter Miriam's June 2004 wedding. They put down $500 to reserve the date, and received an information packet that stated the inn's terms: The deposit was nonrefundable unless "a wedding is booked for the same date as cancelled."

At some point after that– the two sides differ as to exactly when– the Tobiases decided they didn't want to have the wedding at Prospect Hill after all. In an email to me, Tobias said that shortly after booking the inn for Saturday, June 12, they learned that "no one in the local Jewish community was willing to perform a wedding on a Saturday." He also claimed that Prospect Hill's wedding coordinator, Jerrie Long, had "discouraged" them from having a Sunday wedding, "citing staffing problems and poorer service on a Sunday."

"So," Tobias continues, "we used that as our reason for canceling, even though the real reason was that our daughter was thoroughly turned off by Jerrie's haughty and condescending manner after meeting with her a few days later." Tobias claims that they cancelled "a week" after making the reservation, but Prospect Hill owner Bill Sheehan tells a different story.

In a March 15, 2004, letter to Tobias, Sheehan states, "It was more than a few days later when your daughter called to cancel; it was many weeks later." When I interviewed him, he said that Miriam didn't ask for the deposit back until "after the first of the year."

In any case, both sides agree that the turning point came in March, when the Tobiases learned that the inn had booked a luncheon on the day in question. Before that, knowing that a refund hinged on Prospect Hill having scheduled another event, they had accepted the possible forfeiture.

Here's where the two sides diverge and stay diverged: Tobias claims that the inn had only to book another "affair" to let them off the hook, and that a luncheon fills the bill. The inn's written terms, however, state that another wedding has to be booked: As Sheehan explains it, a luncheon for $20 a head is a far cry from the revenue from a $75-per-guest wedding.

Tobias and Long agree that Miriam wasn't at her best when she demanded that Long return the deposit, but they vary in their degree of censure. Tobias says his daughter was "rude." Long claims she was insulting and used profanity. "Had she been my daughter," Long adds, "I would have been embarrassed."

As I said, this is one of the more passionate disputes I've investigated. So far, Tobias has filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau and the state's Office of Consumer Affairs. Sheehan claims both entities have ruled that Prospect Hill is correct to retain the deposit, but that neither has put its findings on paper yet.

In his email to me, Tobias says he's willing to sue Sheehan in General District Court. Sheehan, in turn, says that he's willing to go to the Supreme Court.

Five hundred dollars is a big wad of cash– for most of us, anyway– and I don't blame the Tobiases for being frustrated. But I also can't blame a venue for holding a deposit until they booked a replacement wedding. After all, June is well known as the top wedding month, so if the inn turned away other weddings, their losses far exceed $500.

Marriage, anyone? I hear Prospect Hill has an opening– and I sincerely hope someone snaps it up soon.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at Box 4553, Charlottesville 22905.