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So I live in a city that has these organizers who are newspaper owners that are about to go forward with a huge event that brings people from all over despite the fact that I just saw the coronavirus numbers increase by 18 in the past 24 hours here in the United States.

If this event results in an outbreak in my city, is there a legal precedent for a lawsuit against these organizers? Has anything like this been done before?

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  • Is the event organized by the city? What specifically would the reason be for the government to step in? – MSalters Mar 2 '20 at 10:16
  • @MSalters, Its organized by one staffer a local newspaper, an editor and co-founder of the same newspaper and a booking agent. The reason for the government stepping in is to avoid a contagious disease epidemic in the city. – Daniel Mar 2 '20 at 16:34
  • @MSalters,my apologies but I edited my question, apparently the organizers are private individuals that happen to own a local newspaper. Would that change your answer? – Daniel Mar 2 '20 at 16:52
  • @MSalters, interesting that the CDC not advising to cancel events would hold weight here, as I have seen events across the globe cancelled, 2 oil industry conferences cancelled, flights suspended, schools closing, Twitter suspending business flights for its employees and so on. – Daniel Mar 2 '20 at 16:56
  • @MSalters, I guess my question on the CDC point would be, if it becomes common practice among all townspeople to not touch the fire because they believe it will burn them, that will not hold in court above one expert who says he never advised not to touch the fire? What role would a jury play in such a lawsuit? My questions are probably not that well put together but I hope you understand where I am going with this. Thanks. – Daniel Mar 2 '20 at 16:59
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Lawsuits are only allowed for harms to a particular private individual's health that actually arises from the conduct of the person sued. You can't sue because there was an outbreak in your city, you have to show individualized harm to you.

To prevail you would have to make out a "negligence" claim. The elements of this claim are (1) a duty, (2) that was breached, (3) by someone with injuries, (4) that were caused by the breach of duty.

There are two kinds of duties. One is the general duty to use the care of a reasonable person to prevent foreseeable harm to others (a breach of this duty is called "negligence"). The other is to obey statutes and regulations and ordinances intended to protect people like the person injured from the harm suffered.

If someone doesn't violate a statute, regulation, or ordinance, then one has to show that it as negligent to carry out the event.

There would also be an affirmative defense that the fault was entirely that of the victim by attending the event knowing of the risk.

I wouldn't rule out negligence liability for event organizers, but it is more likely that they would be sued not for holding the event, but for failure to use reasonable care in how it was conducted (e.g. not having face masks and hand sanitizer on hand).

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  • The lawsuit, potentially a class-action one since I would not be the only harmed, would obviously be because of harm caused to me, not because of an outbreak in my city in and of itself. The outbreak could either lead to physical harm, I or my family become infected or financial harm, I have to expend resources that would have otherwise been allocated elsewhere to ensure my family did not contract this disease. Either harm could have been avoided by simply doing as many others have done, cancel the event. Your last point, "negligence liability for event organizers", any previous case law? – Daniel Mar 3 '20 at 3:00
  • Looks like I am not alone, someone apparently was able to gather a petition, 20,000 signatures, to cancel this event. So 20,000 people would believe in this case and join it, if a class action resulted. Correction, 26,000 and still counting. Not only signatures, people are chipping in $20 or more. – Daniel Mar 3 '20 at 3:08
  • Even CEO of Twitter pulled out of his scheduled appearance at this event. – Daniel Mar 3 '20 at 3:15
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    @Daniel People are still going to come to your city whether or not this event happens. People in your city are still going to be infected even if it's cancelled. If the event does go forward the people who attended the event and people who didn't attend the event would be in two different classes and only the former would've have a chance of certifying a class action against the event organizers. As someone who didn't attend the event you won't be able to show that your circumstances are the same as other people who also didn't attend the event. – Ross Ridge Mar 3 '20 at 9:07
  • @RossRidge, Its not a question of people visiting my city, people travel, this is understood. There would be unnecessary travel with this event going on. Especially when the artists to be performing are from parts of the world where the outbreak has reached emergency levels. For example, one performing group is coming from a country where the numbers of infected 274. So bringing performers from areas where there is now an epidemic to a non-infected area has no case? Or it would only have a case for attendees is what you are saying? – Daniel Mar 3 '20 at 13:25
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The CDC isn't advising such bans, so your "goes against public health" is already hard to prove. The next thing would be to prove that it's not the organizer, the state or the Federal government which should stop the event, but the local community. And you'd have to prove that they reasonably should know the CDC was wrong (!).

Finally, the question of sovereign immunity comes up. This would ordinarily be irrelevant for local governments, but usually local governments don't have the power to ban such events anyway. The freedom to assemble is a First Amendment freedom; local government would likely need to be implementing Federal law to override that freedom. And in that case, the municipal government does fall under Federal sovereign immunity.

So all in all, it looks like a certain win for the city, but the technical question how they win depends on the details of the lawsuit.

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