Medical meeting planners know that special recreational events add sizzle-and value-to meetings. Who could forget an incentive trip that included snorkeling, scuba diving, skiing, in-line skating, boating, or a desert jeep ride? Yet new and unfamiliar activities can mean significant risk for attendees who participate.

Recognizing the risks involved in such activities, many organizations ask their attendees to sign a legal release from liability that protects the planner and the organization from a law suit should injuries occur. However, to avoid liability, the planner should first exercise due care before deciding whether and how to sponsor-or to get involved in any way with-a special recreational event. Without due care, a signed release might not protect against law suit.

What It Means Due care is legal terminology that covers the prudent course that should be taken by a reasonable planner to avoid chance of injury to an attendee. Due care helps avoid major risks and confirms that basic safety measures are in place. Among the many elements of due care are the following:

Appropriate Activities. Factors to consider include the nature and physical condition of the group-and of particular attendees-and the inherent risks of the activity. Certain activities will be more suitable for some groups than others-and some will prove unsuitable altogether.

Claims and Disclaimers. For optional events, the organization should disclaim sponsorship in event announcements.

Alternatives. Attendees should always have the right to say no. To avoid a coercive peer situation, it is best to arrange for advance announcement, advance booking, and an opportunity to opt out at the hotel, rather than at the event site, where participants may be embarrassed and feel pressured into joining in the activity.

Referrals. Avoid recommending vendors. If you must, recommend only those vendors that have been thoroughly-and recently-investigated.

Event Description. Completely and accurately describe the event before the meeting, and include a full statement of risks as well as indicators against participation (such as a heart condition or inability to swim skillfully). If a statement of considerable risks is likely to deter substantial participation, the event may be ill-advised. The announcement, disclaimers, and risk factors should be printed in large, clear, and conspicuous type.

Safety and Reputability. All safety devices should be in good repair and only skilled personnel employed. Greater risk requires greater expertise for events personnel. Compliance with the law (such as Coast Guard certificates); current inspection of premises; and references for safety, customer satisfaction, and business integrity should always be carefully checked.

Insurance. Adequate insurance coverage (of course) and indemnification by suppliers should be required.

Safety First Use a legal release document, but don't rely on it completely to protect you-or you may receive an unwelcome surprise.

In a recent case, a skier at a ski resort was seriously injured when he collided with a metal pole at the ski lift waiting line. The skier claimed the resort was negligent in the design, construction, and placement of the metal pole. The claim was made even though the injured skier had signed a document releasing the resort "from any and all liability for personal injury . . . resulting from negligence." The language was clear and acknowledged that "alpine skiing is a hazardous sport with many dangers and risks and that injuries are a common and ordinary occurrence of the sport." The ski resort claimed the release blocked any claim of negligence or recovery against the resort by the skier.

The court disagreed, however, concluding that broad waivers of liability for pre-injury negligence would remove an incentive to manage risk-and require recreational sports participants to bear "risks they have no ability or right to control." The court relied on a fundamental principle that all businesses operating in the state must operate in a reasonable, safe manner. It did not limit the decision to skiing, ski operators, or even to recreational businesses.

To complicate matters, the law governing releases is in flux and varies state-by-state. Cases in two states, decided ten to 15 years ago, upheld releases involving an air service for a parachute jump and sponsorship of an Iron-Man decathlon competition. A recent case in another state, however, refused to enforce a pre-injury release from liability in a Teflon-Man triathlon competition.

The pertinent factor is: All businesses-including professional meeting planning-are responsible for conducting themselves with due care. Even a full, specific, and risk-identifying legal document of release, while desirable, does not assure protection.

The safest course? Do not rely on releases alone. Stress safety first.