ALBANY — Already facing an uncertain summer and fall due to the COVID-19 pandemic, large entertainment and sports venues also risk exposure to coronavirus-related lawsuits once they open their doors.
Venues can make it clear on tickets and post signs to let attendees know they are entering the facilities at their own risk, or have attendees waive their plans to sue. But it does not necessarily shield them from legal liability.
Any agreement that exempts “pools, gymnasiums, places of public amusement or recreation and similar establishments” from being sued for negligence is “deemed to be void as against public policy and wholly unenforceable,” according to Section 5-326 of the state’s General Obligations Law.
Barry Skidelsky, a corporate commercial lawyer based in Manhattan, said “places of public amusement or recreation and similar establishments” could apply to facilities such as venues for concerts, arts and sports. He noted that the statute referenced any contract — including a “ticket of admission or similar writing” — in which the venue operator received a fee from someone who used the facility.
Skidelsky, the immediate past president of the New York State Bar Association’s Entertainment, Arts and Sports Law Section, said the legal risk for businesses is always their exposure to liability for damages to a person or property.
“The coronavirus crisis has raised new concerns about how venue facility owners and operators can protect themselves and the public going forward,” said Skidelsky, who is of counsel to the firm of Jin and Koppell. “I think it’s essential that there be a team effort — now — between the owners and their business people and their lawyers, their accountants and their insurance brokers to figure out how they will best address a resumption to a new normalcy.”
Some venues, he said, may try to take temperatures of guests before they walk in the door. One avenue, he said, could be legislation barring people who tested positive for coronavirus from attending such shows for a period of time.
Coronavirus has caused “problems ahead that need to be anticipated and planned for film, television, theater, Broadway and others, music, large stadium and arenas as well as small clubs,” Skidelsky said.
In the Capital Region, the Times Union Center has listed six postponements and cancellations through Aug. 26. Saratoga Performing Arts Center, which canceled events for 30 days, is still planning its summer season. SPAC’s website also noted the COVID-19 and its impact on its site.
“Just about this time of year, we begin the process of what we call SPAC Awakening – the lawn begins to take on a promising green tinge – the doors of various buildings begin to be thrown open – and the physical preparations for a summer full of amazing performances are already underway,” the site said. “Alas, we find ourselves mourning the necessary closing of many of our most important and beloved arts organizations – both in the Capital Region – and around the world – with futures uncertain, to put it mildly.”
Asked about the potential legal liability for SPAC and similar venues, Elizabeth Sobol, SPAC’s President & CEO, said in a statement: “We feel it is too early to definitively weigh in on this complex and difficult question. Obviously, in this rapidly evolving situation, we are in regular consultation with our legal counsel and insurance carrier to determine potential legal and liability implications of the pandemic and its aftermath.”
Philip Morris, the CEO of Proctors’s Theater in Schenectady, said some of his peers have canceled their summer schedules while others are waiting to figure out whether they should or not.
“I think it’s a decision that’s a communal one … it’s not like Proctor’s alone is going to decide anything like that,” Morrris said. “We’re going to be listening to civil authorities. We are going to be responding to the realities of the economics of what a restart looks like. We’re going to be implementing whatever measures civil authorities suggest.”
Asked about the possible legal liability, Morris said, “I’m not sure we are in legal territory as much as we are in total new civic territory.”
Skidelsky said the impact of the coronavirus is yet to be fully felt.
“It affects so many corners of our lives,” he said, “not the least of which is our need as people to socialize and recreate.”