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States are beginning to ease restrictions on businesses regarding the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. As such, some states are dictating that your auction business could reopen to live events, with some jurisdictions requiring various levels of social distancing, personal protective equipment and the like.

So what’s the risk? Besides the somewhat obvious risk that bidders don’t yet feel comfortable attending a live auction, what if someone becomes sick, hospitalized, or dies as a possible result of attending your live auction?

The case for potential liability on your part goes like this:

  • Did the plaintiff attend your auction?
  • Did the plaintiff become sick or die?
  • Did you take prudent, reasonable precautions?
  • Did you negligently expose people to the Coronavirus?

This isn’t an issue of becoming liable, but rather becoming potentially liable. The injured party doesn’t have to prove you are the cause of their illness or death, but rather merely claim it in order to file a lawsuit. That’s what a lawsuit is — a claim.

In order to win against you, a claimant will likely have to prove your actions (or inactions) caused their illness or death (causation.) So, you might win the lawsuit, but you’re still in a lawsuit. We’ve discussed this false dichotomy many times: https://mikebrandlyauctioneer.wordpress.com/2018/07/26/auctioneers-you-want-win-in-court-or-stay-out-of-court/.

If your response is that those bidders “should have known better” than to attend then expect their attorneys to argue, “you should have known better” than to have a live auction. Further, and more importantly, if you are in defiance of a state-wide order, this claim becomes virtually academic.

You as an auctioneer might feel any such restrictions are unreasonable — or even government overreach — but you don’t get to decide what the laws are or are not. Even if your brother-in-law county sheriff says he will, “look the other way,” don’t count on anyone injured doing the same.

Prior to this pandemic, you as an auctioneer had a duty to provide a reasonably safe environment at your live auctions and/or online pickups. Nothing has changed in this regard. Forging ahead ignoring these responsibilities is completely ill-advised.

Mike Brandly, Auctioneer, CAI, CAS, AARE has been an auctioneer and certified appraiser for over 30 years. His company’s auctions are located at: Mike Brandly, Auctioneer, RES Auction Services and Goodwill Columbus Car Auction. He serves as Distinguished Faculty at Hondros College, Executive Director of The Ohio Auction School, an Instructor at the National Auctioneers Association’s Designation Academy and America’s Auction Academy. He is faculty at the Certified Auctioneers Institute held at Indiana University and is approved by the The Supreme Court of Ohio for attorney education.