Releases and waivers provide an excellent layer of protection against liability. So, why don’t more planners put the us of these documents on their “to do” list regularly? Expert Barbara Dunn explains the importance of release and waiver documents, how well they protect planners and their clients, and some of the pitfalls (no pun intended!) you may fall into when incorporating them into your planning repertoire.
By Barbara F. Dunn, Esq.
Here’s the scenario: Your organization’s new CEO has a great idea for a recreational event for your next meeting between customers and salespeople. It’s a “beach challenge” involving a variety of physical and mental contests. Teams of customers and salespeople, drawn at random, will compete against another for prizes. Food and beverages, including alcohol, will be provided throughout the event. Mary Smith, a key customer of your organization, falls on the beach obstacle course and breaks her leg. She later sues your organization for damages relating to her injury.
Scenarios like this happen more often than you might think. We live in a “sue or be sued” society in which it’s become a natural reaction to blame someone other than yourself for your injuries.
SHIFTING THE RISK OF LIABILITY
But since participation in many recreational events at meetings is voluntary, more and more organizations are seeking to shift to the participant the risk of liability that may arise out of participation in the event. In other words, if you want to take part in the event, you must assume the risk of any potential liability.
The documents used to shift the risk of liability are known as releases and waivers. While not absolute, releases and waivers provide an excellent layer of protection against liability. These documents state that the participant knows the activity they are voluntarily electing to do is potentially hazardous to their health, they release the organization from liability due to any resulting injuries, and they waive (or forgo) any claims they might have against the organization for liability. In other words, the individual is taking sole responsibility and liability for any injuries arising out of their participation in the event.
From a legal standpoint, in order to be enforceable, a release and waiver must be entered into voluntarily and with full knowledge of the potential risks associated with the event. As to the “voluntary” element, participants make their own choices whether to participate in the event or to sign the release.
The Document Must Meet the Standards
As to the “knowing” element, participants must be made aware of the potential dangers associated with the event beforehand so that they can sign the release with full knowledge. When a document meets these standards, protection from liability is extended to the organization for injuries inherent to the activity (e.g., getting hit by a golf ball during a golf tournament). If the injury is caused by something other than an inherent risk (e.g., a meteor falling out of the sky while someone is golfing), the protection may not apply.
From a practical standpoint, many organizations shy away from using releases and waivers in connection with their recreational events because they are concerned as to how the document will be received by their participants. But that concern should not deter groups from using this important risk management tool.
Rather, planners should develop a release and waiver that can be included in the overall registration materials for the program so that people have plenty of time to review and sign it instead of handing a document to them before the start of the event. The release can be written to be specific to one event, or can be made broad enough to cover all events occurring during the meeting. Keep in mind that a minor (anyone under age 18) cannot sign a release on their own; a parent must sign the release on their behalf.
ZERO TOLERANCE: EVERYONE SHOULD SIGN
So what does a planner do if a participant does not want to sign a release and waiver? Organizations can develop their own positions on this issue, but a “zero tolerance” rule is best. This means that everyone – event the company president’s husband – signs the release and waiver, or they do not participate. Some organizations, on the other hand, will choose to make exceptions regarding who needs to sign the release and waiver to participate in the event. Keep in mind, though, that it’s often the times that we make exceptions to best practices that they come back to “haunt” the group in the form of a claim for injuries from a participant.
So the next time you’re planning an event, consider using a release and waiver as one form of risk management for your organization. The risk your organization shifts today may just save it from liability tomorrow.MM&E