In less than two weeks’ time, the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation will hold its GEOINT Symposium at the Tampa Convention Center, postponed from October 2013 due to the government shutdown. But after filing an event cancellation insurance claim, and being refused a payout, the association has filed suit against one of the world’s largest insurance firms. How might it have better protected itself? And how will association meetings that depend on government employees as speakers and attendees fare in the future?

In a lawsuit filed on March 25 in U.S. District Court in Tampa, the USGIF claims that the U.K.-based Lloyds of London failed to live up to a policy that would “protect against loss that might result from a cancellation, curtailment, postponement, removal to alternative premises or abandonment” of the symposium, according to an article in The Tampa Tribune.

USGIF canceled the annual event, which was expected to draw some 4,000 attendees to discuss geographic analysis mapping. “Despite the phenomenal support from the City of Tampa, its mayor, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, and others in Tampa, the absence of government speakers from our program and the absence of government customers from our exhibit hall, forced the unavoidable postponement of the 10th Annual GEOINT Symposium,” the association wrote in an FAQ page on itsWeb site in October.

The lawsuit states that “as a result, USGIF sustained and continued to sustain serious and substantial injury and damage, and incurred significant expenses and obligations.” Some of those expenses included lost planning and preparation work, refunds to exhibitors and sponsors, and arrangements with hotels and other vendors.

Adam DePiro, director of convention sales, Visit Tampa Bay, told MeetingsNet that "the Tampa Convention Center is not pursuing cancellation fees."

The association claims that when it tried to collect on the policy, Lloyds of London “without any reasonable justification and in bad faith refused to honor its obligation under the policy and refused to indemnify USGIF for losses sustained,” according to the article, which adds that the suit does not specify the extent of the losses, stating only that it is in excess of $75,000.

How to Protect Your Meeting?

“I have never heard of a meeting organizer suing its event cancellation insurance company,” said meeting and hospitality industry attorney Joshua L. Grimes, Esq., Grimes Law Offices, LLC, when asked by MeetingsNet to comment on the case. “Cancellation itself is rare, and when it happens, it is usually apparent from the policy documents whether the insurance is applicable. And in the eventdisputes arise, the planner and insurer are usually able to settle their differences amicably.”

Grimes added, “the coverage depends on the specific wording in the insurance policy, which is not easily analyzed. But since most lawsuits settle at some point, I would say it is likely that the parties will agree to some resolution before the case goes to trial and a decision is rendered.”

While not associated with the case, Grimes reviewed the court record, and commented on how the association might have better protected itself. “I have not seen the event contract, but the organizer should have included a force majeure or ‘excuse of performance’ clause covering the contingency of a government shutdown. The organizer knew or should have known that a shutdown was possible since it happened several years ago, and has been threatened several times since,” said Grimes.

“And in the event of a shutdown, it would become likely that government employees would not be able to pay for their travel. So language could have been incorporated into the contract allowing for cancellation of the event without liability to the organizerif a shutdown happened. This would have been the best way for the organizer to plan for a shutdown, and in the future this meeting organizer and others should consider including such a clause in their event contracts.

“This did not appear to be aforce majeure event allowing for cancellation without liability under the laws of most states,” added Grimes, “as it was not illegal or impossible for the event to go forward. Among other things, to my knowledgeit was not impossible or illegal for military or government personnel to travel because of the shutdown; rather, they chose not to do so because the government would not cover the cost of their travel and/or they probably wouldn't be paid for their time. Presumably, the officials could have traveled at their own expense, or the expense of the organizers, and they would not have run afoul of the law for attending the event.

“Further, from a cursory review of the insurance policy, it appears that the event organizer didn't do everything it should have done to protect its interests. The policy included a clause that allowed the organizer to identify ‘key’ speakers without whose attendance the event couldn't go forward. From the information available in the court record, itappears that the organizer failed to identify the government officials who couldn't attend due to the shutdown as key attendees, so their absence didn't require the insurerto offer compensation. This underscores the need of event organizers to secure event cancellation insurance, and to read the policies carefully so they can be called upon to compensate if a cancellation becomes necessary.”

Good News for Government Employee Conference Travel

The U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics made public in mid-March a February 20 memothat encourages government employee participation in technical and industry conferences, despite the curtailments in government travel expenditures.

That’s good news for conferences that depend on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) professionals, such as the GEOINT Symposium. “The Department is the single largest employer of scientists and engineers in the United States,” reads the memo signed by Under Secretary Frank Kendall. “Maintaining professional currency is an important part of this investment in human capital. Science and technology conferences and symposia, at which technical data and information is exchanged, are potentially beneficial both for maintaining technical competence and for the professional development of DoD scientists and engineers.”

“USGIF welcomes federal employees at the GEOINT Symposium with complimentary registration in addition to robust professional development opportunities in the form of training and education sessions,” USGIF said on its Web site.

The GEOINT Symposium has been rescheduled for the Tampa Convention Center April 14–17.