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Ticketmaster sued over COVID-19 refunds policies

By | Published on Tuesday 21 April 2020


A music fan in California has filed a class action lawsuit against Ticketmaster over allegations it changed its terms on refunds after the COVID-19 shutdown began. However, the Live Nation-owned ticketing company has already denied any major change to its terms of service, while Live Nation itself has issued guidance in recent days about how refunds will be issued for its own American shows that have been cancelled or postponed.

Of course, the entire live industry has been dealing with an unprecedented number of cancelled and postponed shows as governments across the world have introduced measures to restrict and delay the spread of COVID-19. How and when refunds are issued varies from country to country – and company to company – depending on what local consumer rights laws say, what each ticketing firm’s own terms set out, and what approaches individual promoters and venues (and possibly their insurers) are taking.

In many cases a distinction is made between cancelled shows and postponed shows. With the former, cash refunds are usually issued automatically and pretty quickly.

However, given the wider negative impact of the COVID-19 shutdown, some promoters have been looking for more time to issue refunds, and/or to persuade ticket-buyers to accept a voucher instead of money. How much flexibility there is for promoters will depend on local laws, though in some European countries the live sector has requested that those laws be amended in the short-term to help promoters weather the COVID storm.

For postponed shows, promoters and their ticket agents often hold onto monies until new dates have been announced. Then, usually, refunds will be offered to those who can’t make the new dates. Again, a promoter’s exact obligations will depend on local consumer rights laws. Though many promoters offer refunds on postponed shows either way, not least because generally most ticket-buyers still want to attend the show, so the number of refunds you have to issue is relatively low.

It’s Ticketmaster’s policy on postponed shows that is at the heart of the class action lawsuit filed by Derek Hanson, who in February bought tickets via the Ticketmaster website for two Rage Against The Machine shows that were due to take place this week. Those shows, of course, have been postponed because of the COVID-19 shutdown.

But can Hanson get a refund? In his lawsuit he claims that when he bought his RATM tickets the relevant page on the Ticketmaster website stated that “refunds are available if your event is postponed, rescheduled or cancelled”.

However, he says, the ticketing firm then “retroactively changed their refund policies so that visitors to the same webpage were redirected to a new page that said only that refunds were available for cancellations”.

“In other words”, the lawsuit goes on, “defendants now identifies cancellation as the only basis for getting a refund. Refunds are no longer being offered for postponed shows, which are currently postponed indefinitely, or for rescheduled shows, even if ticket holders can’t make the new date. Ticketmaster’s policy now states that, ‘If the event was moved, postponed, or rescheduled, the [promoter or venue] may set refund limitations'”.

Hanson’s lawsuit follows a flurry of criticism of Ticketmaster in the US – both online and in the political community – for its handling of refunds on postponed shows. Though the ticketing firm has told reporters that, although it did recently clarify the language on its website, its refund policy hasn’t really changed, in that decisions relating to postponed shows have always been made by its clients, ie the promoters.

But those promoters will do the right thing, Tickemaster President Jared Smith has assured his firm’s more vocal critics in Washington in a letter to Congress members Katie Porter and Bill Pascrell. He wrote: “Let me reiterate: neither our clients, nor Ticketmaster, intend to withhold refunds on postponed shows. In fact, as of today, both Live Nation Entertainment and AEG Live, two of our largest event organisers, have announced they will begin to provide refunds, on a rolling basis, for all events impacted by COVID-19”.

Other Live Nation and Ticketmaster execs have pushed back at their critics off the record, arguing that they have been working flat out to try to deal with an unprecedented situation. They stress that for each postponed show there are promoters, venues, booking agents, artist managers and artists themselves to be consulted, and that takes time. Therefore any silence on refunds to date hasn’t been ominous, it’s simply that lots of meetings have to take place.

As Smith mentioned in his letter, AEG as well as Ticketmaster owner Live Nation have both issued statements in recent days clarifying their position on refunds for COVID-19 affected shows in America. Which in turn clarifies the position on a significant number of the shows currently sitting on the Ticketmaster US platform.

Both companies are refunding monies on cancelled shows, although Live Nation is also offering customers a voucher option, with said vouchers worth up to 150% of whatever money is owing. On postponed shows, ticket-buyers will be able to request a refund for up to 30 days after new dates have been announced (Live Nation will also offer vouchers in that scenario too). However, for postponed shows with no new dates, ticket-buyers will still seemingly be in limbo, which has been one of the big criticisms to date.

The lawyer leading on Hanson’s lawsuit welcomed the recent statements from Ticketmaster, Live Nation and AEG, but said issues remained. Speaking to Law360, Marie McCrary of Gutride Safier LLP said: “We remain concerned that for rescheduled events Ticketmaster is still leaving the refund decision to the organisers of each event. In addition, when events are ‘postponed indefinitely’ without any new date set, refunds are being denied. Ticketmaster needs to offer refunds for all such events”.

Ticketmaster, of course, isn’t the only ticketing company already sued Stateside over COVID-19 refunds. Secondary ticketing platform StubHub was sued earlier this month for changes it made to its FanProtect Guarantee scheme in the wake of the pandemic.