So here's the scenario: Your organization's new leader has a great idea for a recreational event at your next conference. It's a “Beach Challenge” involving a variety of both physical and mental contests. Teams of attendees (drawn at random) will compete against one another for prizes. Food and beverages will be provided throughout the event. During one of the beach ball contests, Mary Smith, a member of your organization, falls on the obstacle course and breaks her leg. She later sues your organization for damages relating to her injury.

Scenarios like this are all too common and happen more than you might think they do. Many individuals, especially those living in the United States, live in a “sue or be sued” society in which it's a natural reaction to blame someone other than yourself for your injuries.

But since participation in many recreational events at meetings is voluntary, more and more organizations are seeking to shift the risk of liability that may arise out of participation in the event to the participants themselves. In other words: if you want to participate in the event, you must assume the risk of any potential liability.

The document used to shift the risk of liability is known as a release and waiver. While not providing a guarantee against liability, release and waiver documents provide an excellent layer of protection. The document states that the participant knows that the activity he or she is electing to do is potentially hazardous, and that he or she releases the organization from liability due to any resulting injuries and waives any claims against the organization for liability. In other words, the individual is taking sole responsibility and liability for any injuries arising out of participation in the event.

In order to be legally enforceable, a release and waiver must be voluntarily entered into, and the participant must have full knowledge of the potential risks associated with the event. As to the voluntary element, participants make their own choices as to whether to participate in the event and to sign the release. Regarding the “knowledge” element, participants must be made aware of the potential dangers associated with the event beforehand so that they can sign the release with full awareness of associated risks. When a document meets these elements, protection from liability is extended to the organization for injuries that are inherent in the activity (e.g., getting hit by a golf ball during a golf tournament). If the injury is caused by something other than an inherent risk (e.g., a meteor falling out of the sky while someone is golfing), the protection may not apply.

From a practical standpoint, many organizations shy away from using release and waiver documents in connection with their recreational events because they are concerned as to how the document will be received by their participants. But that concern should not deter groups from using this important risk-management tool. Rather, planners should develop a release and waiver that can be included in the overall registration materials for the program so that people have plenty of time to review and sign it instead of being handed a document just before the start of the event.

The release can be written to be specific to one event, or it can be written broadly to cover all events occurring during the meeting. Keep in mind that a minor (anyone under age 18) cannot sign a release; rather, a parent or guardian must sign the release on the minor's behalf.

So what does a planner do if a participant does not want to sign a release and waiver? Organizations can develop their own position on this issue, but a “zero tolerance” rule is best, meaning that everyone — even your organization's executive leader — signs the release and waiver or they do not participate. Some organizations, on the other hand, will choose to make exceptions as to who needs to sign the release and waiver to participate in the event. Keep in mind, though, that when exceptions to best practices are made, they often come back to “haunt” the group in the form of a claim from a participant for injuries.

So the next time you're planning an event, consider using a release and waiver as one form of risk management for your organization. The risk your organization shifts today may just save it from liability tomorrow.

Barbara Dunn is an attorney and partner with Howe & Hutton Ltd., a law firm that specializes in representing groups in the meetings, travel, and hospitality industries. She can be contacted at bfd@howehutton.com.