Risk Management for Special Events

One of the more important risk management concerns for my community association clients is the management of potential legal liability risks arising from special events.  Whether an association hosts a special event itself or permits its members to use its facilities to host their own special events, there are a number of risk exposures to be considered and addressed in order to protect the event participants and the association.  Stephanie Dufour’s blog post, Safety Considerations for Your “SPECIAL” Day,  is an excellent overview of the risk management issues to be considered.

In addition to Stephanie’s excellent post, I offer the following, addressed to the risk management needs of the venue owner (typically, in my case, a community association):

  • In her 2nd point, Stephanie points out important considerations for the event sponsor regarding location selection.  For the property owner offering its facilities for use (a community association which permits use of its clubhouse for private parties, for example), a similar analysis is important.  The type of use and number of participants for which your facility is safely suited should be carefully considered, and described in your lease, permit or use agreement.  It should go without saying (but I’ll say it anyway ’cause that’s what we lawyer types so often do), that you should in fact have a written agreement for a member’s (or other third party’s) use of your facilities, and that agreement should cover the scope of permitted use, indemnity obligations, insurance requirements and liability waivers.  
  • In her 3rd point, regarding food service, Stephanie notes the importance of proper food preparation and handling.  From the property owner’s perspective, if food will be sold by vendors at an event held at your facilities (an Octoberfest, for example), your written agreement for that event should include appropriate requirements pertaining to any government-required licensing or food handling procedures.
  • Stephanie’s 4th point addresses risk management issues for events where alcohol will be served.  Whether the facility owner is hosting such an event itself or is permitting another party to host the event, Stephanie’s suggestions regarding procedures to institute to ensure the responsible service of alcohol are important.  In addition, liquor liability insurance coverage should be obtained (for a community association, this would typically be done via appropriate endorsement to the association’s commercial general liability – CGL – insurance policy) and, if alcohol is to be served by a third party host, by requiring appropriate liquor liability insurance coverage to be provided by the host via the property use agreement.  The potential need for a temporary liquor license should also be considered.  For example, a wine tasting event may require a one day liquor license.  Information regarding liquor licenses for special events in California can be found here (scroll to the 3rd page). 
  • I cannot endorse strongly enough Stephanie’s comments concerning vendors/collaborative events (Stephanie’s 8th point).  I would add only one thing to Stephanie’s comments – if there will be vendors (booths, entertainment, food, etc.) at your special event, which party will assume liability risks and provide insurance coverage should not only be discussed, but must be carefully memorialized in writing in a binding legal document. 
  • Regarding waivers (Stephanie’s 9th point), keep in mind that the law regarding enforceable terms, scope and format differs from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.  In addition, there are specific legal issues pertaining to waiver and release agreements pertaining to minors.  Do not rely on a form document found on the internet.  Seek the assistance of an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction with experience addressing these issues.
  • Similarly, laws vary from state to state regarding the meaning, scope and enforceability of indemnity agreements.  You need an indemnification clause in any use agreement granting a third party permission to use your property; again, seek the assistance of an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction with experience addressing these issues to prepare your agreement, to ensure that indemnity obligations are addressed in a manner consistent with the law in your jurisdiction.
  • Further to Stephanie’s 10th point, regarding photo/media releases, another issue to consider is how to protect your organization against potential breach/violation of copyright, license and/or publicity rights and similar issues.  One scenario in which a community association may be vulnerable to such claims is when the association hosts outdoor concerts.  Your contracts with live entertainment vendors must be written in such a way as to protect the association against such claims, particularly since such claims may not be covered by the association’s own insurance policies.  It is also important to determine whether there is a sound ordinance controlling the allowable decibel levels of the music, and be sure to address such rules in the vendor’s contract as well.  In my experience, such issues are rarely addressed in the entertainment vendor’s own contract (and when they are the issues are not addressed in a way which protects the association), so I would further add the recommendation that you have the association’s legal counsel review and negotiate the terms of that vendor’s contract as necessary.

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The Never Pay Insurance Policy

Earlier this year, attorney John L. Watkins posted an entertaining and very informative series of blog posts about what a business should do if its insurer denies coverage for a claim.  Now, I know what you’re thinking.  “An attorney, huh?  Sure, that means an overly informative series of blog posts.  But entertaining?  Oh, come on, now!”  But really, as dry (and scary) as the topic may be, Mr. Watkins made it entertaining.  I mean, he even quoted Monty Python, for goodness sake.  The only thing I can figure is that his ability to make this topic entertaining must have something to do with the fact that he hails from Atlanta, Georgia.  Interestingly, he and I share similar professional backgrounds and, though located on opposite sides of the country, are seeing the same trends when it comes to insurers’ denial of insurance claims (both for an insured’s own property damage claims and, more scary, when it comes to defending and indemnifying insureds against liability insurance claims). 

At any rate, the posts, here, here, here, and here, are very good.  I couldn’t have said it better myself good.  So, rather than saying it myself, I’m pointing you in their direction.

In addition to the important points Mr. Watkins raises:

1.  Treat your insurance policies as if they were valuable financial documents, because they are.  Keep every piece of paper the insurance company sends you, in chronological order.  You will likely not receive a new copy of the entire insurance policy every year, so keep all of the documents you receive the first year the policy is in place (which will be lengthy, and should include declarations pages, coverage parts – sometimes in the form of a booklet – and endorsements) and then all of the documents you receive after that.  Keep them forever. 

2.  Read your insurance policies! Don’t wait until you have a claim (or a claim has been made against you). Insurance policies are notoriously difficult to understand, particularly when it comes to figuring out how the parts of the policy (the declarations, coverage parts and endorsements) work together. Get your coverage questions answered when you first receive a policy, not when you need it to respond to a claim, because then it’s too late to change your coverage if that’s necessary.

3.  Report claims or events which may give rise to a claim promptly.  Don’t do it by calling or e-mailing your insurance broker.  It’s okay to do that, too (certainly you will want to keep your broker “in the loop”), but your insurance policy or policies will have a section that tells you exactly how and where you are to send notices.  Do it that way.  Exactly the way the policy says you should. 

With respect to a claim against you by a third party (as opposed to a claim you may make to your insurer for damage to your own business property), provide your insurance policies to an attorney with knowledge regarding insurance coverage, and have the attorney decide which insurers to tender a claim to, and how.  Don’t assume which insurers should be notified (commercial general liability or professional liability insurer, current insurers or past insurers too), or whether or not the claim should also be tendered to your umbrella carrier.   

While we’re on this topic, the question of what is (or is not) a potentially covered third party claim is not always clear.  Certainly, if you are served with a lawsuit it should be tendered to the appropriate insurer(s) immediately.  But what if you receive notice of an administrative law hearing, or you receive a demand letter that threatens litigation in the future?  Again, this is when you need to consult with an attorney, since failure to notify an insurer when you should could deprive you of any coverage you would otherwise have had.   

4.  If you ask an insurer to defend you against a third party’s claim, and receive a reservation of rights letter (a letter from or on behalf of the insurer telling you that you will be provided a defense but the insurer reserves the right to contest coverage), take it very seriously.  If you haven’t already consulted an attorney by now, this is absolutely the time when you should.  A number of issues arise from an insurer’s reservation of rights letter, such as (depending upon your jurisdiction), your potential right to independent counsel (instead of, or in addition to, the insurer’s choice of defense counsel) at the insurer’s expense, and/or the insurer’s potential right to allocate the cost of some (or, given the outcome of the litigation, potentially all) of the defense costs incurred by the insurer to you (yes, that’s right, you could end up having to reimburse your insurer).  Statutory and case law applicable to these issues differs from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, so you will need the advice of an attorney who knows the law regarding insurance coverage and claims handling in your State.    

5.  Rather than (or in addition to) a reservation of rights letter, your insurer may ask you to sign a non-waiver agreement.  This document should be taken just as seriously as a reservation of rights letter.  More seriously, even.  Here’s why.  Generally, an insurer has the burden of identifying all potential grounds for denying coverage.  Failure to do so in its reservation of rights letter to the insured may be held to be a waiver of any grounds not identified.  Among other things, a non-waiver agreement typically is written in such a way as to avoid such a waiver.  Do not sign it until you have consulted with an attorney who is knowledgable regarding insurance coverage.

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Furthermore, a rose by any other name . . .

. . . may also bring a visit from the tax man (or woman).  Or the labor board.  Or a process server.

My previous “Rose By Any Other Name” posts have been about (a) misnamed/unnamed insureds and (b) contracts (verbal vs. written).  This post is about independent contractors who are really employees (at least, as far as the federal and state tax authorities are concerned), and other “thorny” employee classification issues.

At this time of rising State and Federal deficits, there seems to be an increased scrutiny of how small and medium sized businesses are classifying their workers.  In addition, attorneys who represent workers before the Labor Board seem to be experiencing an uptick in business, commensurate with rising unemployment.  This is strictly based upon anecdotal evidence (I’m receiving more calls from business owners on the receiving end of employee pay and benefit claims), but my suspicion is that such claims, as well as tax enforcement proceedings, are on the rise and will continue along that trend for some time to come. 

Proper classification of workers as independent contractors or employees (and if employees, as temporary, part-time or full-time and as exempt or non-exempt) can mean the difference between financial survival or failure, particularly for a small business, and small business owners, who do not have their own HR staff, are often the least equipped to make these determinations.  Failure to properly classify employees can leave a small business vulnerable to claims for legally mandated employee benefits such as workers’ compensation and unemployment benefits, for discretionary benefits such as health insurance and paid time off, and for back overtime pay.  Properly classifying employees is particularly difficult for small businesses with fluctuating staffing needs, since it is easy for a busy small business owner to forget to reclassify a temporary employee who becomes permanent, or a part-time employee who becomes full-time.   

The solution?  Well, my instinct as a lawyer is this – put it in writing, and keep it in writing.  Even temporary workers could be given something in writing that makes it clear that their status is temporary, with an approximate time limit.  Then calendar the end of that time limit, as a reminder to revisit the issue of how that worker should continue to be classified.  And even small businesses should have a written personnel policy to point to when your employee classifications (or other employment practices) are questioned.       

More dangerous than a misclassification of an employee is the improper classification of a worker as an independent contractor.  Such a misclassification leaves the employer vulnerable to back payroll taxes and penalties as well, which can be substantial enough to put you out of business.  And, whether a worker should be classified as an independent contractor or as an employee can be a particularly tricky determination for a small business owner to make, since the criteria for independent contractor status used by the IRS, the federal Department of Labor and state labor departments don’t all impose exactly the same standards. and are not “exact” but, rather, are open to some interpretation.  Even large companies, such as Microsoft and Federal Express, have been the subject of expensive enforcement actions alleging misclassification of workers.  The new targets for such actions appear to be small businesses, and I’m sure that has alot to do with the fact that they are the most likely to be mistakenly misclassifying their staff.    

The solution?  Again, my instinct is to put it in writing.  As far as I am concerned, a written contract is absolutely essential.  Even with a written contract, however, treating the independent contractor as an employee may indeed make the contractor an employee, whether that’s what you intended or not.  For an explanation of how the IRS analyzes these issues, see IRS Publication 15A.   

Finally, years ago one of my community association clients learned the hard way that even with no employees it still needed workers compensation insurance.  That is because California’s Labor Code provides that one who hires a worker to perform work requiring a license is that worker’s employer if it turns out that the worker doesn’t have the required license.  (It may shock you to hear that sometimes unlicensed contractors lie about their unlicensed status and either provide a fraudulent contractor’s license number or “borrow” another contractor’s license number.)  The association hired an unlicensed contractor, one of the contractor’s employees was injured, and the association was on the hook, with no workers compensation insurance and with a workers compensation exclusion in its commercial general liability insurance policy.  To get a better feel for how California’s Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board analyzes the issue of employment status, take a look here

The solution to this problem?  Legal liability risk management, plain and simple.  A good insurance broker and an attorney to prepare the association’s own contracts, requiring contractors to maintain appropriate licenses and insurance coverage, would have been a big help.

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What to Do if You’re Sued? I Couldn’t Have Said it Better Myself . . .

. . . so I won’t.  Instead, I’ll direct you to this blog post, So Your Business Has Been Sued:  Now What?  It provides an excellent general overview of the steps to take should your business be sued, to which I would like to add the following.

First, while a lawsuit may sometimes take a business owner completely by surprise, there are often plenty of warning signs that a lawsuit may be on its way.  A demand letter from a vendor, subcontractor, customer or client, for example, may include the threat of litigation should an issue not be resolved.  As explained in the referenced blog post, it is important to notify your insurer(s) when you are served with a lawsuit, but it may also be important to notify an insurer of threatened legal action even before you are served.  This is particularly true if the insurance policy in question provides coverage on a claims made basis (such as an errors and omissions policy).  Engage counsel early to advise not only when to notify your insurers, but how.  On this point, I must say that I disagree with the cited blog post’s advice that you should be relying on your insurance broker to determine whether there may be insurance coverage, and to handle notifying your insurer(s) of the lawsuit.  Your attorney should be making the coverage analysis.  And, regarding the “how” of tendering a claim or suit to an insurer for defense, sending it to your broker may not constitute notification to the insurer (unless your broker is the insurer’s agent – and agents and brokers are not the same thing), and may not satisfy your insurance policy’s notice provisions and requirements.

Something the cited blog post doesn’t mention is what you can expect your insurer’s response to be.  Upon notifying an insurer of a claim made or lawsuit filed against you, you will at some point receive a letter from your insurer explaining the coverage your insurance policy may provide for your defense, and any qualifications or limitations there may be on that coverage.  Attorneys call this a reservation of rights letter, although the insurance company will most likely not put that at the top of the letter.  Instead, you will receive a relatively lengthy letter from an in-house claims representative or coverage attorney, or from your insurer’s outside legal counsel (in other words, a letter on legal letterhead).  Receipt of such a letter is a “heads up” to you that the insurer is contesting coverage.  Don’t ignore a reservation of rights letter, because it is a genuine “red flag”.  Instead, consult an attorney with knowledge about insurance coverage, to determine if there are grounds to disagree with the position your insurer has taken, and to decide what steps should be taken if there are grounds for disagreement.  This is important, for several reasons.  First, while generally the insurer has the right to pick your defense attorney, control the defense, and determine whether to settle the case and if so for how much, the insurer’s reservation of rights may give you important rights to select your own defense counsel and control your defense (attorneys in California refer to this as Cumis rights).

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The “Why and How” of Risk Management

IRMI (the International Risk Management Institute, Inc.) recently published an excellent “white paper” covering the basic principals of business risk management.  You can find it here.  It is somewhat lengthy (approximately 70 pages), but well worth the read. 

Described as an “illustrative introduction to risk management for business executives”, the author (George L. Head, Ph.D., CPCU, ARM, CSP, CLU) begins by asking the reader to consider a hypothetical scenario (a fire causing the near collapse, and ultimate demolition, of a 2-story concrete garage supporting a 5-story, 80-unit apartment complex).  This factual scenario is then used to provide a “concrete foundation” (pardon the pun) from which the author explains the basic “whys and hows” of risk management for business organizations.  

One of the things I particulary like about the paper is that, in explaining “Why We Manage Risk”, Dr. Head includes “Preparing for Opportunities”, and puts it right up there near the top of the list (second only to “Safeguarding Resources”).  The positive aspect of business risk (the fact that business risk is necessary to the creation of business opportunities) is rarely mentioned, much less highlighted, in discussions of business risk management.  My most successful clients understand this key point and are careful to put themselves in the best position possible to take advantage of business opportunities by effectively managing the risks inherent in those opportunities, through appropriate insurance coverage and contractual risk transfer (the basics of which are also discussed in this paper).

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