March 01, 1999
Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio March 1999 Current Issue
March 1999 Jonathan HowePLANNER'S PORTFOLIO:

The Law & the Planner


Free Help May Be Too Expensive

Weigh the pros and cons before hiring volunteers

Q: We are planning a small guest program. One of the staff members wants to drive the attendees around. What kind of a liability would we be exposed to if an accident occurs? My recommendation is to use the services from the convention bureau. What do you think we should do?

Amparo Lago
MarcCom Specialist
Westinghouse Security Electronics
Fremont, Calif.

A: Liability can fall on the meeting sponsor’s shoulders if a staff member or volunteer takes on the driving duties. The best route is to hire a third-party contractor to handle the driving. Here’s why:

Suppose the staff member or volunteer, working explicitly for the organization, has a car accident and causes injury not only to passengers in his car but also to third parties in the car he hit. The meeting sponsor most likely would be liable to both the driver of the other car and the passengers in the volunteer’s car. Why? Because the sponsor of the activity, according to the courts, should bear the risk of harm to others resulting from carrying out the activity. In other words, paying for the damages becomes part of the cost of doing business. In fact, in many situations, a person who lends his car for either business or pleasure purposes is liable when there is an accident.

Defenses in either case will depend on the scope of the staff member’s or volunteer’s assignment and the loss incurred in the course of carrying it out. However, especially with automobiles, disclaiming liability is very difficult.

In other situations where injury may occur, the courts will explore the extent to which the individual was following instructions or directions from the sponsor. In a case where one person at work threw a cherry bomb into another work area, the court dismissed a suit against the employer because there was no evidence that throwing a cherry bomb was part of the person’s job description. This ruling shows the need for a detailed description of what is to be done by either staff or volunteers.

In an alternate scenario, if a staff member or volunteer causes harm while carrying out a duty he was not authorized to do, but it appeared he had the authority to act, the meeting sponsor also may be liable.

With staff, more than likely, accidents will be covered by the organization’s insurance. Of course, when assigning a staff member or a volunteer to such tasks as driving guests around town, planners should check with the organization’s insurance agent to be sure the driver will be covered.

Meeting sponsors are generally not held responsible for acts or omissions by independent contractors. In other words, the use of a third party may provide the sponsor with a shield to liability. The caveat is that due care must be used in the retention of the independent contractor. It is imperative to include a clause in the agreement seeking indemnification from the contractor should someone bring a claim.

This discussion brings to mind some words to the wise when hiring volunteers:
1. Give volunteers detailed job descriptions and make sure they understand their duties.
2. Be sure the volunteers are capable of doing the assigned jobs.
3. Make sure they understand they now have a commitment, coming under the supervision and the insurance policy of the organization.
4. Make sure the volunteer, if using his or her car, has adequate insurance in place.
5. Double-check that the organization’s insurance policy covers the volunteer and staff for any activity undertaken on behalf of the meeting sponsor. A rider for “non-owned” automobiles cars that don’t belong to the organization is a must.

Bottom line: If possible, it is best to hire a professional to organize and staff tours and special events. Otherwise, if something goes wrong, the organization is going to pay the price.

Jonathan T. Howe, Esq., is a senior partner in the Chicago and Washington, D.C., law firm of Howe & Hutton, Ltd., which specializes in meetings, travel and hospitality law.

Do you have a legal question?
E-mail your concern to and look for expert advice in a future edition of this M&C column. We regret all questions cannot be answered.

Back to Current Issue index
M&C Home Page
Current Issue | Events Calendar | Newsline | Incentive News | Meetings Market Report
Editorial Libraries | CVB Links | Reader Survey | Hot Dates | Contact M&C