Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio June
The Law & the Planner
BY JONATHAN HOWE
Talk is Cheap; Litigation Isn't
Words spoken at the podium could land you in court
Whoever said talk is cheap certainly wasn't a meeting planner.
In this business, we know professional speakers often charge hefty
fees. And some of us have found out the hard way that we may
continue to pay in court for what is said at the podium.
How many planners have been unpleasantly surprised by the words
spoken by the very people they have paid to stand up and speak?
Unfortunately, too many. And that's something that should never be
left to chance. In addition to well-founded concerns about quality
and usefulness, planners must make sure speakers' presentations are
accurate and legitimate, and that they don't cast aspersions upon
In some cases, common sense rules. A facetious example I have
used in past: Think twice before hiring a speaker whose alleged
expertise is frontal lobotomies as an outpatient procedure.
Well, I can no longer be facetious, because recent lawsuits have
brought the topic close to home. Consider the plight of four
medical associations: More than 2,000 civil actions have been filed
alleging that the seminars held at these associations' continuing
medical education programs were a means to promote an allegedly
defective surgical device Ñ a pedicel screw used in spinal bone
surgery. Due to use of this screw, it is alleged thousands have
sustained severe medical injury.
The medical societies conducted or sponsored programs that
included instruction on the use and application of pedicel screws.
The plaintiffs allege that the societies were negligent in allowing
the screws to be featured and thereby "aided and abetted the
unlawful promotion of the device." Motions to dismiss the cases
have been denied, with the court finding cause to go to trial. It
is estimated that the defense of these cases is costing hundreds of
thousands of dollars a month.
Another recent decision from a Georgia State Court of Appeals
takes a somewhat different look at the dangers that lurk at the
podium. A chiropractor filed a claim against a state association of
insurance companies and claims adjusters, as well as an attorney
who was a speaker at an association-sponsored seminar and his law
firm. The lawsuit sought damages for libel, slander, intentional
infliction of emotional distress, disparagement of services and
unfair trade practices, not to mention injury to peace, happiness
and feelings, along with invasion of privacy.
What happened? The association asked the attorney, who
frequently represents insurance companies in cases involving
insurance fraud, to speak at a seminar on "insurance fraud
indicators" and to provide a paper on the topic. In his paper, he
included information about advertising by the chiropractor (the
plaintiff) in an ethnic community. The speaker charged that
chiropractors and other professionals were specifically soliciting
that community for its insurance claims business.
The article was made a part of the association's seminar
handouts. No one at the association supervised or approved seminar
materials submitted by speakers. Some 150 copies of the material
were reproduced and given to attendees. During the seminar, the
speaker never discussed the section of his materials on the
particular claims or the plaintiff's advertisements because he ran
out of time. The materials, however, were passed on to the
plaintiff's attorney, who then brought suit.
Eventually, the Appellate Court threw the entire case out, but
only because the court felt no actual damage was done to the
Definitions may help to understand why the court threw out the
case. Libel is written defamation, while slander is oral
defamation. In either case, defamation "tends to injure reputation,
esteem, respect, goodwill or confidence, or to cause adverse,
derogatory or unpleasant feelings or opinions against someone."
However, before defamation becomes a basis for a lawsuit, the
result must bring about some actual harm.
Here's what planners should learn from these two cases.
- You need to have a contract with every speaker that obligates
the speaker to hold your organization harmless and to defend you in
the event of any claim of negligence, defamation, invasion of
privacy and the like.
- Speakers should be admonished that they are not to do or
present anything that could cause claims of this nature to
- A disclaimer in programs and printed materials should state
that the sponsor is not responsible for the materials or opinions
- You have to face the costs of defending yourself, if necessary,
and it's not cheap.
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
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