Details Matter: What You Need to Know About Liability Release Forms

// Brian Gleason on Tuesday September 26, 2017

Your organization likely sponsors a variety of exciting activities, including trips. Ensure full participation and minimal risk in all of your activities by having each participant sign a carefully worded assumption of risk and release of liability. If you fail to fully disclose the potential risks of your activity, you expose your organization to potential litigation.

Cara Munn was a student at a private school that sponsored a study abroad trip to China. As part of the process of signing up for the trip, her parents signed a release of liability form outlining the details of the trip, including what to bring and what to expect while traveling to China. However, the release form did not outline all of the potential risks, specifically the fact that the group would be travelling to a more remote area of the country with limited access to medical services, and that participants would be exposed to insect-borne illnesses.

The group was hiking in a forested area in northwest China when Cara was bit by an infected tick and contracted tick-borne encephalitis, a disease with life-changing symptoms.

A federal jury determined that the school was negligent in not specifically listing insect-borne illness as one of the risks of the trip. The school appealed, but the Connecticut Supreme Court supported the jury’s decision.  The court was clear that the school had a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect students under their care from foreseeable harms. Traveling to China does not create an exception to this duty. As a result of its negligence, the school was found liable for more than $41 million in damages.

While incidents like this are rare, the consequences are severe for everyone involved. Here are several important takeaways from this ruling to help protect your organization:

Make sure every participant has a completed release of liability form. Make sure that parents have signed on behalf of any minors, and that all participants are covered by a release. It’s easy to overlook a participant or to assume that they signed a release in the past, but it’s vital to thoroughly double check that everyone coming through the door, getting on the bus or boarding a plane has appropriate paperwork.

Make sure the release is specific to the event. Planning excursions can be exhausting, but this is not the time to take the easy road and cover every event with one big blanket release. It’s nearly impossible to cover the details of the specific event’s risk in a blanket release. The assumption of risk should detail all the possible risks of the event including travel, athletic participation, weather, etc.

Make sure the release is reviewed by legal counsel. Laws related to effective releases are different in each state. Work with your legal counsel to develop a template document that can be used to outline the risk associated with each activity and that has appropriate language releasing your organization from liability.

Make sure releases are part of a document retention program. The statute of limitations can be extensive when it comes to the types of claims brought on by activities, and it does no good to have a signed release if you cannot produce it during discovery. Get advice from your legal counsel on how long you need to retain signed releases, and store these releases in a secure, yet easily accessible place.

This material is for information only and is not intended to provide legal or professional advice. You are encouraged to consult with your own attorney or other expert consultants for a professional opinion specific to your situation. This information is only a general description of the available coverages and is not a contract. In an effort to keep your policy coverage affordable, the actual policy contains certain limitations and exclusion. Please refer to your insurance policy for the pertinent contract language and coverages. Some coverages and discounts are not available in all states. GuideOne welcomes all applications, without regard to religion, race, color, national origin, sex, handicap or familial status.

Brian Gleason

Brian Gleason

Brian Gleason is the Senior Risk Manager for Education at GuideOne Insurance, providing resources and consulting services to GuideOne clients in the education niche. Prior to his career at GuideOne, Brian spent twenty years in risk management for a Christian university in California. Brian has his MBA along with years of experience in insurance, enterprise risk management, occupational health and safety and emergency preparedness and response. 

What the Solar Eclipse Means for Your Organization

// Eric Spacek, JD, ARM on Thursday August 10, 2017

For the first time since 1979, the United States will experience a total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017, meaning that the moon will completely cover the sun for a period of time that day. While everyone in the contiguous U.S. will be able to see at least a partial eclipse on August 21, residents in parts of 14 states will be in the “path of totality,” as NASA puts it, a ribbon 70 miles wide where a total solar eclipse will be visible. This will begin at 9:05 a.m. PDT in Lincoln Beach, OR, and move across the U.S. from west to east until it concludes at 2:48 p.m. EDT in Charleston, SC.  The total solar eclipse will be visible in parts of OR, ID, WY, MT, NE, IA, KS, MO, IL, KY, TN, GA, NC and SC as depicted in the image below:

Image Source

 

What Does This Mean for Your Organization?

Because of the rarity of the total solar eclipse, people are traveling to areas within the “path of totality” and eclipse watch parties are being planned.  If your organization’s property lies in the path of the total eclipse, you will need to make decisions on how to handle eclipse-related gatherings.

First, you must decide if you will open your property to eclipse-watchers. If yes, read on. If not, then your organization may want to secure access to the property in some way, whether with cones, tape, signs or some combination of those items. 

Second, if you decide to open your property to eclipse-watchers, you will then need to decide if you will allow people to stay overnight in preparation for the eclipse, or if you will limit access to the daytime during the eclipse itself. If you allow overnight occupancy, read on. If not, then again you should secure access to the property during overnight hours.

Third, if your organization decides to allow people to stay overnight, you need to determine if such overnight occupancy is permitted by local zoning, fire, health or other regulations.  Some jurisdictions require a temporary certificate of occupancy for such purpose, or disallow the practice altogether.

Fourth, if your property will be open to guests overnight and local regulations allow, the following safety and risk management considerations should be top of mind:

  • Determine which part(s) of the property to open and restrict access to those parts that are not.  For example, will you allow access to the parking lot but not the building? Into a part of a building but not another? 
  • If your building will be open or partially open to the “public,” secure appropriate supervision to ensure that only designated parts of the building are used. Consider signage, locked doors or other means to restrict access to areas of the building that you do not wish to open up.
  • Related to the above, determine how to handle restroom facilities: whether you open up your building for this purpose, provide kaibos or portable facilities, or do nothing.  The latter option may not be allowed by state or local regulations and risks potential unpleasant consequences for your property.
  • Consider how you will provide supervision and/or security for the parking lot and other areas where people will be staying overnight.  You may wish to hire an outside security service for the safety and security of your guests, your volunteers and your building(s).
  • Before the date of the event, complete a detailed inspection of the building and grounds, making sure that any potential hazards or defects are either corrected or appropriately marked off via cones, tape or other method of warning.  Pay particular attention to exterior and interior walking surfaces to make sure they are in good condition, adequately lighted and kept free of slip, trip and fall hazards.  Consider photographing or videotaping the pre-event condition of the premises for documentation purposes.
  • Consider requiring people who come onto the premises to complete a guest registration form with their complete contact information and sign an appropriate waiver of liability form. 
  • Provide appropriate receptacles for the disposal of trash and recyclables.
  • Establish rules for the event and prominently display them.
  • Consider restricting the possession or use of alcohol, illegal drugs, alcohol or weapons while on your premises.
  • Consider restricting the presence of animals or pets on the premises to bona fide service animals for the disabled.
  • Encourage participants to be responsible for their own safety while viewing the eclipse. View safety tips here.
  • Discuss the proposed event with your insurance agent or broker.

 

For further reading on the solar eclipse, visit NASA’s 2017 eclipse website

This material is for information only and is not intended to provide legal or professional advice. You are encouraged to consult with your own attorney or other expert consultants for a professional opinion specific to your situation. This information is only a general description of the available coverages and is not a contract. In an effort to keep your policy coverage affordable, the actual policy contains certain limitations and exclusion. Please refer to your insurance policy for the pertinent contract language and coverages. Some coverages and discounts are not available in all states. GuideOne welcomes all applications, without regard to religion, race, color, national origin, sex, handicap or familial status.

Eric Spacek, JD, ARM

Eric Spacek, JD, ARM

Eric Space, JD, ARM is the Director of Risk Management and Loss Control at GuideOne Insurance in West Des Moines, Iowa.  Before joining GuideOne, he served as Minister of Operations for a large Methodist church in Raleigh, N.C., and was a liability litigation trial attorney in Washington, D.C.