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Liabilities and Risks from COVID-19

October 8, 2021
Reading time: 5 min

The information provided in this video does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice; instead, all information, content, and materials available on this site are for general informational purposes only. Information in this video may not constitute the most up-to-date legal or other information. Readers of this website should contact their attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular legal matter.

In this video, you'll learn what your risks are for having a meeting or event in the age of COVID-19. Can I have a vaccination policy for my meeting? Should we have attendees sign a waiver?

Check out what Barbara Dunn (Partner at Barnes & Thornburg LLP, representing groups) and Lisa Sommer Devlin (Devlin Law Firm, P.C. representing hotels) have to say in Legalease With the Ladies- powered by HopSkip!

Video Transcript:
Liabilities and Risks from COVID-19 

Barbara: Hi, I'm Barbara Dunn, an attorney that represents groups.

Lisa: And I'm Lisa Sommer Devlin, an attorney that represents hotels and resorts.

Barbara: And together we're Legalease with the Ladies sponsored by HopSkip. Today's video focuses on the concerns around liability for having meetings and events in the age of COVID 19. Many group clients that I work with are concerned that having meetings prior to the circumstance in which the majority of the population is vaccinated for COVID 19, really raises liability concerns. I always remind my clients that the answer to the question, can I be sued is always, yes. Courthouse is open 365, 24/7 online. Yes, lawyers who make their living by making claims could certainly make a claim that someone who attended your meeting or event subsequently contracted COVID, might have had that at the event. But we know that's often difficult to prove. And yet, it's a concern.

Personally, I think it's a concern that no one wants the bad thing to happen. No one wants that to be the case. No one wants that conference for example to be a super spreader event. So, liability issues really are a concern and rightfully so. I mentioned vaccines and many of you have asked me in the recent past, ‘Can I have a vaccine policy for my meeting?’ The answer is yes, you can from a legal standpoint. The better question might be should I have a vaccine policy for my meetings. Because of course if you set the bar at everyone who comes to the meeting has to be vaccinated, you're likely right now to cut out a certain segment of the population who might not yet be vaccinated.

So, encouraging vaccines is probably a good strategy to employ, that is encouraging attendees who come to meetings and events to be vaccinated. But also, just focusing on the recommendations that currently are in effect and continue to be updated. For example, the centers for disease control or CDC guidelines and recommendations for meetings and events. We also have a lot of meeting industry specific guidance, of course much is focused on the need to physically distance from one another as well as wearing face coverings.

Now I mentioned the encouragement of vaccines. What are the exceptions? You know, if you said to me but really can I require vaccines. The answer as I mentioned is yes. However, there are two main exceptions to keep in mind. The first exception of course are folks who are not able to take the vaccine because of an underlying health circumstance. And that's something that would be made known to the group at the time someone who fell in that category wanted to attend the meeting. The other aspect the other exception if you will, situations in which someone has a firmly held religious belief that prevents them from taking the vaccine or prohibits them from taking the vaccine. So, those are two important exceptions across your meeting sector to keep in mind and here's one other. Remember if you collect data, you're responsible for keeping data. And when it comes to health data it has that higher standard of protection.

So, when organizations seek to access copies of a vaccine policy or the vaccine passport as we've heard a lot about, they're collecting really health information. And so, it's really critical that if you're going to collect information you have to protect it. This really requires an integrated discussion both with your legal counsel as well as your technology, your IT folks, your platform providers. To figure out how can you protect this data.

Lisa: It is a very uncertain thing and that is despite the religious beliefs or the underlying conditions that Barbara talked about. There are certain segments of people who for a variety of reasons choose not to get the vaccine. And it's going to be difficult to enforce those policies when people are simply making a choice. It leaves a lot of questions open down the road. Which leads a lot of customers to suggest perhaps we should have attendees and hotels suggest this as well. Perhaps we should have people sign a release saying that, ‘If they get COVID 19 at this event that they will not make any claim against the hotel or the event sponsor.’ And the question is, is that enforceable and is it a good idea?

The first question as to enforceable is frankly it's probably not going to be enforceable. Pre-injury releases have been around a long time and have been used in a lot of contexts. And while enforceability varies from state to state, the general rule is that pre-injury releases are only enforceable in very limited circumstances. Usually, when it's a recreational activity that a person can choose to engage in or not engage in and it's not necessarily something that they need to do. Releases that people are asked to sign before engaging in activity that is a business requirement or not simply a recreational thing, are generally not as easy to enforce. Now releases may be helpful in that they may discourage lawsuits. As Barbara said, the courthouse is always open and anybody can file a claim for anything.

But if someone has signed a release and then they get sick, they may be less likely to file that claim even if that release would ultimately not be legally enforceable. But that doesn't guarantee that you're going to be protected. The other thing to think about in pre-event releases is the optics involved. Whether it's the hotel asking the guests as they check in or the event organizer as people are registering or signing up and arriving to get their badges. Do you really want to hand them a document that says, ‘Hey, you are at risk of a life-threatening illness here? We want you to say that you're not going to hold us responsible.’ That may not be the way you want to encourage your attendees.

I think the better thing is on the hotel side, every major hotel chain if you go on their website has their protocols for cleaning and how they're keeping people safe. I think customers should be doing the same. Barbara and I are getting ready to participate in an industry event. And recently we've engaged in calls with the event sponsor where they went over all of their protocols, how they intend to keep their speakers and their attendees safe. It made you feel really comfortable. It would be a very different story, if they asked us to sign a release before we agreed to participate in their event. So, I think releases may not be the way to go. What are you telling your clients, Barbara?

Barbara: So, it's a big question mark. And the risk you take in doing that is that you will likely alienate some folks who might otherwise come to the event, but who are concerned about you know signing their life away or signing their life away on behalf of their families. And where I really see this create a firestorm is when their comments are then posted to social media, ‘Can you believe that this group is forcing us to do this?’ So, it's really something that you have to look at from all angles. Lisa, one point you made that I want to really emphasize is the communications piece. Both communications as it relates to the hotels and what they're doing. Convention center venues as well as on the group side.

Now we never want to guarantee you have a safe environment, because of course that in and of itself raises legal issues. But really the rules of the road, the rules that the group is going to follow or the hotel is going to follow and then the rules if you will that attendees will follow. This is a certain circumstance in which we're all in this together and that shared responsibility. Something I think on the going forward is something that will really be focused on by groups and hotels alike in the coming years.

Thank you for joining us for another edition of Legalease with the Ladies powered by HopSkip. 

The information provided in this video does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice; instead, all information, content, and materials available on this site are for general informational purposes only. Information in this video may not constitute the most up-to-date legal or other information. Readers of this website should contact their attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular legal matter.

Interested in learning more about contract terms and contract clauses in your hotel contracts? 
Check out the HopSkip Contract Clause Education Center, created by Barbara Dunn and Lisa Sommer Devlin, and become a hotel contracts expert!
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