While meetings and events play an integral role in fulfilling the mission and purpose of the sponsoring organization, they can also be a risky business. Often, the key to limiting an organization’s liability is to identify which types of risk may be present and then to focus on the best techniques to manage those risks. This first of a two part series will address identifying the types of risk and liability.
There are three main areas of liability: tort, contract and statutory liability.
A tort is a wrong against another. Most tort liability claims arise from negligence. Negligence is the necessary element which must be established in many liability claims. Negligence has four elements: duty, breach, cause, and damages.
Let’s explore how negligence might apply in connection with a conference. Let’s say the electrical cords and cables from an LCD projector in a breakout room were not taped to the floor. During her presentation, a speaker trips on the cords and injures her knee. The speaker sues the organization for her injuries.
In determining whether negligence, a court would look at each element noted above. First, the organization had a duty of care to provide a safe environment for its conference. Second, the organization breached this duty of care when it created an unsafe condition by not ensuring that the cords were properly secured. Third, the cords not being secured caused the speaker to fall. And finally, the speaker suffered damages as result of her fall – namely, medical bills.
As you can see with this simple example, negligence claims are fairly easy to establish. In essence, negligence can be shown when something is done wrong or someone forgets to do something.
Negligence, on the part of the food provider, is often the cause of claims for food borne illnesses. Often, the method by which the food is prepared or stored may allow bacteria to grow giving rise to a food borne illness. Given that food service providers must adhere to strict guidelines from their local health department, failure to abide by these guidelines will be sufficient to establish a claim for damages due to negligence.
In addition to claims of negligence, meeting professionals should also focus on liquor claims which may arise against both the liquor license holder which is serving the alcohol and the social host (group) which is sponsoring the event. Liquor license holders are subject to state licensing laws and, in the case of a license holder serving someone too much to drink and the person causes injury to another, most states hold the license holder automatically liable under its dram shop laws. For social hosts (non liquor license holders), liability may exist in states in which courts have adopted social host liability. There are currently 32 states which recognize social host liability. For a complete list of such states, visit the Mothers Against Drunk Driving web site at www.madd.org.
One other source of potential liability under tort law is claims for injuries as a result of recreational activities such as a 5K fun run at the conference. Since there is a risk that the participants may injure him/herself during the run, the organization must focus on this risk and put proper precautions in place.
Organizations can also be subject to liability via contracts. Such liability can be present in facility contracts such as those with hotels and convention centers and in vendor contracts such as audio-visual, decorator, speakers, and entertainers.
Meeting professionals should beware of clauses in contracts which impose liability on the organization. Examples of such clauses include “assumes responsibility for” or “shall be liable for”. When managers see these clauses, they must ask themselves whether their organization is prepared to accept such liability. If they are, proper precautions should be put in place to ensure any liability is minimized. If they are not, these clauses should be deleted from the contract.
Federal and state laws along with city and county ordinances can impose additional liability for religious organizations in connection with their meetings and events.
Among the notable federal laws which could impose liability to the organization are the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Copyright Act.
Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) requires organizations to provide equal access to goods and services to persons with disabilities. Such compliance requires the organization to not only ensure that the facilities it contracts with for use of its meetings are ADA compliance but also to ensure that its programming is accessible to persons with both physical and communication disabilities. In the case of a hearing impaired individual, ADA compliance can mean providing a sign language interpreter in connection with speakers. In the case of a vision impaired individual, compliance may mean providing the speaker’s handouts in Braille. Failure to comply with ADA can subject the organization to liability imposed on it by the U.S. Department of Justice.
The Copyright Act requires the organization to comply with its use of original works of authorship including music. Organizations are required to secure the appropriate license from a performing rights society (such as BMI or ASCAP) except for music played during a religious service.
Organizations which fail to comply with the Copyright Act could be held liable for monetary damages to the copyright owner.
Hopefully this summary of risks and types of liability associated with meetings and events has raised your awareness of these areas of concern. In the second part of this series, we will focus on the techniques for eliminating and managing the potential for liability.
Barbara Dunn is an attorney and partner with the law firm of Howe & Hutton, Ltd. She can be reached at [email protected]howehutton.com or (636) 256-3351.