June 01, 1998
Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio June 1998 Current Issue
June 1998 Jonathan HowePLANNER'S PORTFOLIO:

The Law & the Planner


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 other people.

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 plaintiff.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. Speakers should be admonished that they are not to do or present anything that could cause claims of this nature to arise.
  3. A disclaimer in programs and printed materials should state that the sponsor is not responsible for the materials or opinions of speakers.
  4. 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 hospitality law.

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