by By Jonathan T. Howe, Esq. | June 01, 2010

Two recent court decisions offer new legal lessons for meeting professionals. One involves what to do with the unruly, drunk participant, and the other concerns rights of first refusal in contracts.

One Too Many Recently, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled on a case involving a car accident that occurred after the driver had been drinking at a "bring your own alcohol" club. He and his friend had been ejected from the establishment after the driver was found intoxicated in the men's room, drunk on the rum and vodka he had brought with him. The club had sold the customers only glasses, ice and nonalcoholic mixers.

Upon arrival at the club, the driver's vehicle was left with a valet. When he and his friend subsequently were ejected, employees instructed the valet to bring the car to the front. The employees then opened the driver's door and told the two men to leave.

Roughly 15 minutes later, the car collided with another vehicle, killing the defendant's passenger and the driver of the other car, who was pregnant. The estates of the victims sued both the driver and the club for common negligence and liability under the Illinois Dram Shop Act. The club's attorneys argued that the law did not apply here, since the establishment did not sell alcohol. They also argued that there was no common-law cause of action.

The trial court judge granted a motion to dismiss the Dram Shop and related alcoholic allegations. However, the court allowed the remaining common-law counts to proceed, to consider whether there was a duty owed to the deceased by the club. It held that where a defendant's conduct contributes to the risk of harm, then there can be a degree of liability based upon forseeability, the likelihood of injury and the magnitude of duty owed.

As the result of an appeal, the Supreme Court of Illinois affirmed that, although the Dram Shop Act did not apply, the club was liable because its employees allowed a drunk person to drive.

This case is the latest in a long list of decisions that establish a host's responsibility where there is any hint that their actions might facilitate injury to another party.

The lesson for planners: Rather than sending a drunk attendee on his way, assign someone to take that person to their residence or hotel, or escort them to a safe place until they can sober up.

Contract Law The second case involved a dispute over a contract clause between a trade show owner and a trade association that said the association was to be the first offered any future show opportunities, called the right of first refusal. The U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed the case, in which the trial court had found that the defendant show organizer, by offering a co-location opportunity to a third party, had breached the terms of the contract. The question involved the definition of the term "opportunity" in the contract.

The District Court rejected the defendant's argument that the decision to co-locate a new trade show with the third party -- which was, incidentally, the plaintiff's closest competitor -- was an independent act and was not covered by the contract clause. Instead, the court found that the original contract gave the plaintiff the right of first refusal concerning any "activity, alliance or opportunity" concerning the particular industry involved.

In the original trial, however, the plaintiff failed to prove real damages, so the association was awarded only one dollar. On appeal, the Circuit Court affirmed the earlier judgment against both parties. The lesson: Stick to the letter of your contracts.