Hosting an athletic event—from a golf tournament to a 5K run—lets you offer attendees a change of pace, but includes the risk of liability.

Consider what happened years ago when a worldwide advertising agency held an adventure outing for clients in British Columbia. During a river-rafting trip, a wave broke over the raft, causing it to hit a boulder. Eleven of the 12 passengers, including the guide, fell into the water, and five people drowned.

In the lawsuit that followed, the ad agency asserted that it should not be held liable because the plaintiff’s husband, one of those who died on the trip, had signed a broad release purporting to relieve the agency of liability for any personal injury or property damage arising out of his participation in the trip.

The court disagreed, voiding the release and holding the ad agency liable for damages. In reviewing the liability waiver, the court considered whether or not the husband understood the risks associated with white-water rafting on the river. The court also took note of the fact that an ad agency employee had circulated the release to all participants in the airport while they were waiting to take charter planes to the river site. Neither the guide nor the rafting company owner was present at the time the release was signed.

While some might argue that the trip sponsor should be held liable because it had arranged the event, others would contend that this individual knew what he was getting into (being a somewhat experienced rafter), and someone else should not foot the bill.

In fact, the court held that the husband did not specifically know what he was getting into because the release he signed did not detail all of the risks that could occur, and he was not provided with sufficient time to consider the release and ask a knowledgeable representative of the outing’s sponsor for additional information.

So, what’s an event sponsor to do? First, provide each participant with a comprehensive and well-drafted release prior to the start of the event. The release should detail, with specificity, the risks to be faced (e.g., bad weather, treacherous terrain). Inserting detail may make the document longer than a sponsor would like and possibly even frighten attendees, but in the end it can eliminate or substantially reduce a sponsor’s liability in the event that something goes wrong.

Second, think about having an event leader (e.g., a rafting guide) provide a safety discussion for the participants before detailing what can go wrong and how to deal with it.

Third, give the participants ample time to review the release prior to signing it and the opportunity to ask questions of the guide or trip leader. If advance sign-up for the athletic event is required, provide the release as part of the online registration process.

Fourth, conduct due diligence if you hire subcontractors to run an event (e.g., a rafting company). Require that the company have all necessary licenses and training, and demand that they carry liability insurance in an appropriate amount.

Fifth, consider carrying additional insurance for the event. Most commercial general liability policies will not cover “unusual” events, such as golf tournaments, horseback riding, and others. Securing sufficient backup insurance for a few additional dollars could prove to be well worth the investment.

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