Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio March
The Law & the Planner
BY JONATHAN HOWE
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?
Westinghouse Security Electronics
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.
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
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.
AVOIDING DIRECT LIABILITY.
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
1. Give volunteers detailed job descriptions and
make sure they understand their duties.
2. Be sure the volunteers are capable of doing the
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
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
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
Do you have a legal question?
E-mail your concern to firstname.lastname@example.org and look for expert advice
in a future edition of this M&C column. We regret all questions
cannot be answered.
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