18 Tips for Reducing the Risk of a Lawsuit (Part IV – Emergencies)

IMG_4318 by acme, flickr.comThis is the fourth of a 5-part series of ways to reduce the risk of a lawsuit. This part focuses on guidelines dealing with emergency situations.

12.       Reacting to a Crisis

A crisis is a major, unpredictable event that endangers property and/or lives and threatens to seriously harm an organization. Examples of crises in a health club might be a fire, tornado, roof collapse, explosion, terrorist situation, heart attack, or catastrophic accident. Two ways in which a crisis is distinguished from a mere accident is 1) the likelihood of significant media coverage (possibly negative) and 2) the magnitude of the damage (a broken bone vs. 3 dead and 14 injured when a wall collapses). .

Here are a few recommendations on a huge topic. 1) Have a crisis management plan in which the club philosophy and policies are clearly defined. 2) Be certain your staff is familiar with the policies and prepared to follow them closely. 3) One person should be designated and trained to act as the contact person for the public and media. The staff must refer all questions to this contact person.  4) The first priority should be the victims’ well-being. Family members should be contacted and informed. It is important that the organization sees that the victims have superior care and doesn’t just ignore the victim and family, hoping they will go away. Lawsuits result less often when the victims and their families feel that the organization cares about the victims. 5) It is important that the organization find out the facts, not accepting or denying blame. Many authorities recommend that the organization be open with information, investigate fully, and not give the appearance that they are trying to cover up the facts.

13.       Have an AED readily available

In the past, cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) was the best we could do when clients suffered a heart attack. While CPR was better than nothing, the success rate in restarting a heart was poor. Technology has brought us the AED for which the American Heart Association has reported survival rates from sudden cardiac arrest of  49 to 74 percent in some workplace locations. While courts in most states have not yet held that clubs have a duty to have an AED, about a dozen states have passed legislation mandating AEDs in clubs. This trend indicates that the AED will become the required standard of care. Clubs should purchase enough AEDs to insure minimal delay in helping the victim. Many larger clubs have as many as four units on the premises.

Two excuses for not having an AED have been 1) potential liability if the staff member makes a mistake and 2) the expense. Clubs face more potential liability by not having a unit than by having one.  A Federal statute provides immunity for users and every state has an immunity statute. Further, AED prices have dropped tremendously in the last few years.  A number of models are available in the $700 to $1300 range. Regardless of the cost, an AED is less costly than defending a lawsuit . . .  and you might save a life.

14.       Those Accident Reports are Crucial

Club operators often erroneously think that the accident report is just more paperwork. Maybe so, but negligence cases are frequently won or lost on the availability of documentation. At trial, often two or three years later, memories are fuzzy and witnesses are hard to find, but a clear, complete accident report available for all to see makes a telling impact..

Develop an effective form that will provide you with the information you need to access. Include: (a) spaces for names, permanent addresses, and phone numbers of witnesses and victim, (b) diagram of how the accident occurred showing location of people and equipment involved, (c) stress facts, not blame or causes of accident, (d) the apparent nature of the injury, (e) statements of victim (if possible), witnesses, and staff member in charge regarding the accident, and (f) NEVER include the question of what caused the accident.

It is crucial that staff members be trained in completing the report. The staff member in charge should complete the accident report on the day of the incident, give only facts (no opinions), and should not assign blame or causation. The accident report should be filed and safely stored for many years.

Look for the four most basic elements of risk control coming soon.

Dr. Doyice J. Cotten is professor emeritus in sport management at Georgia Southern University and has a consulting business, Sport Risk Consulting.  He is the coauthor of Waivers and Releases of Liability. The 6th edition (2007) is now available and provides a complete and up-to-date source of:  1) state waiver laws, 2) the latest information and rulings regarding waivers for adults and minors, 3) guidelines on how to write waivers (including examples), and 4) a full explanation (and examples) of a Participant Agreement. The book is available from three sources: 1) from the author (djcotten@gmail.com, phone: 912 764-4848); 2) from www.lulu.com; 3) from IHRSA (in PDF only).