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Can Meeting Planners be Held Personally Liable in Connection with Meetings and Events?

Article By Barbara F. Dunn O’Neal Esq.

Throughout my practice, meeting planners have frequently asked whether they could be held personally liable for their work in connection with meetings and events. My typical answer is the one you hate to hear the most from your lawyer: “it depends”. The “it
depends” largely relates to the situation which would give rise to the liability.

How was the planner connected? What work did the planner do? These and many more would be topics of consideration.
Let’s start with the basic premise that we live in a “sue or be sued” society. Plaintiff ’s lawyers have the job of getting recovery for their clients. So they are going to sue anybody and everybody – no matter how closely or remotely they are connected to the situation. Just because a planner is sued doesn’t mean that they will be personally liable for the claim.

If the planner is an employee of the company sponsoring the meeting, it is less likely that the person would be named in the suit. Rather, it would likely be the company only. However it’s not unheard of that a planner could be sued alongside with the employer.
If the planner is an independent contractor, it is more likely that they would be named in a lawsuit. As such, we always recommend independent contractors form a corporation in which to operate their business so that they don’t risk their personal assets.

So what’s likely to tip the scale and to make a planner personally liable in either of these situations?

-Acting outside the scope of authority
– If the planner is acting outside of their job or outside of the authority given to them to conduct the meeting, this factor
will likely add to the plaintiff’s case. If an employee planner went outside of the scope of their job description and signed a big name speaker contract which someone else in the organization is supposed to sign, that would be an example of acting outside of the scope of the authority.

When an independent contractor planner signs a hotel contract in the client’s name despite being told that the client must sign all contracts, that would be another example of the planner exceeding the scope of their authority. Bottom line, make sure you are doing what you are supposed to be doing and not doing work outside the scope of your job or authority.

-Engaging in gross negligence or intentional misconduct – While negligence is the garden variety forgetting to do something
or doing something wrong, it will be difficult to hold planners personally liable for such actions. For example, forgetting to check rooms to make sure the electrical cords are taped down would be an example of negligence. Gross negligence or intentional misconduct is the
next level up. In the example that would be purposely setting a trap with the electrical cords. Thankfully, gross negligence or intentional misconduct doesn’t happen frequently. If it does, however, both employee planners and independent contractor planners run the risk of
personal liability. Independent contractor planners are also at risk of being sued for negligence. Bottom line, avoid bad actions and make sure others you supervise do too.

-Failing to act as a reasonable planner would have acted – If there is evidence that the cause of the situation was the planner not acting in a way a reasonable planner would have acted, then that can expose the planner to independent liability. For example, if a planner witnesses a very drunk person walking to their car after an event in order to drive home, a reasonable planner would likely have made sure that the person did not drive and got home safely. If a planner falls short of that, they run the risk of being held personally liable for such action/inaction. Bottom line, always be prepared to defend your actions as being those which a reasonable planner would do. This would include pulling authority from industry publications, CMP study guide, etc., and establishing you did what you were supposed to do.Again, independent contractor planners are more likely to be sued for this type of conduct.

While planners should not lose sleep over whether they will be held personally liable in connection with meetings and events, they should examine their actions and work as noted above. Independent contractor planners have additional considerations when it comes to incorporation. And both types of planners have access to two other “I words” which would help them in any type of claim: indemnification and insurance. Including an indemnification provision in every contract which extends not only to the group but also to its independent contractor planner is a good idea. Insurance types and levels should be reviewed as well to assess what coverage is in place for the type of claims noted above.

Barbara Dunn O’Neal is a Partner with the Associations and Foundations Practice Group at Barnes & Thornburg where she concentrates her practice in association law and meetings, travel and hospitality law. Barbara can be reached at (312) 214-
4837 or barbara.dunn@btlaw.com.
This article shall not be considered legal advice. In all cases, groups should consult their legal counsel.
©Copyright 2017. Barbara F. Dunn O’Neal, Esq., Barnes & Thornburg LLP. All rights reserved under both international and Pan American copyright conventions. No reproduction of any part may be made without the prior written consent of the copyright holder.

About the author

Joe Clote

Joseph W. Clote is owner of Publishing Concepts, LLC a communications and marketing firm based in Saint Louis, Missouri. Mr. Clote is Group Publisher of MeetMed™ and Missouri Meetings & Events™ (MM&E) magazine, a quarterly publication read by thousands of meeting and event professionals, and producer of the St. Louis and Kansas City trade shows under the MM&E name. Mr. Clote has extensive sales and marketing expertise in the travel, tourism, fine art, insurance, and software development industries.