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Owners find liabilities lurking around every corner

Sports venues battle rising liability insurance costs

By the time hunters are dropped off in the woods at Tara Wildlife, staffers have tested their gear and briefed them on safety precautions and the necessity of wearing the appropriate vests.

“But then you drive off and cross your fingers that they keep it on,” said Gilbert Rose, manager of Tara Wildlife near Vicksburg.

Because of soaring liability insurance premiums, sports venues like Tara Wildlife have stepped up safety precautions and eliminated high-risk activities. Every year since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, they have paid double-digit increases to retain liability insurance coverage, said Gordon Burke of Cooke Insurance Center Inc. in Hernando.

“We’re definitely having more frequent assessments,” he said. “Loss control is one of the key factors now with insurance companies, and we are constantly looking for ways to minimize risk and save the insurance customer money.”

For that reason, when Tunica National Golf Club opened last year, the handicap-friendly facility was equipped with a sophisticated high-tech camera system and plenty of safeguards were in place, said general manager Bob Wolcott.

“I don’t like to think of it so much as being careful, but rather providing a safe facility maintained at a proper level,” he said.

Liability issues for golf courses are not much different than other businesses, said Burke, whose agency insures Tunica National.

“You could have customers slip and fall in a grocery store, so venue doesn’t matter in those cases,” he said. “Overall, all you can do is to make sure your employees are trained on safety precautions and know the procedures to take in case of accidents.

“For the most part on the golf course, golfers are responsible for errant golf balls and there’s an assumption of liability, similar to getting hit with a foul ball at a baseball game. It’s not the course’s fault.”

Health clubs, which are popping up en masse in suburbs across the nation in response to America’s renewed interest in fitness, face special liability concerns.

“One thing that’s unique to health clubs is water, because of hot tubs and pools,” said Steve Shelton, president of Sports & Fitness Insurance Corporation in Madison, a national firm specializing in health club coverage. “Because of damp conditions, customers might be more apt to slip on a locker room floor or by a pool.”

Because of injury risks associated with water, all health club policies must have an unintended water hazard provision, said Shelton.

“For example, if you have a pool, you have to meet certain requirements, such as when it’s not open, it must be locked, the fence surrounding it must be at least four feet high, and a sign should be posted that indicates no lifeguard is present,” he said.

Trainers, who are often independent contractors and not employees, represent another liability for health clubs, said Shelton.

“For instance, if you have a trainer that pushes someone too hard, and as a result, that person tears a muscle, the health club could be liable,” he said. “Independent contractors, who are not club employees, are typically not covered by the health club’s insurance and need to provide proof of their own liability insurance. Think about this: five years ago, probably every trainer in the world was recommending supplements that contained ephedra, and we all know where that’s going. Health clubs need to make sure they’re not selling that type of supplement, and insurers need to make sure they’re not covering that type of thing.”
Most health clubs require its members to sign a waiver of liability — or an assumption of risk — and complete a detailed medical questionnaire before being allowed to join, said Shelton.

“There’s some sensibility involved,” he pointed out. “If I haven’t gotten off the couch in three years and go into a health club for the first time and, on my own, have an intense workout, any injuries should be my fault.”

Insurance agents agreed that most health club clients, by virtue of their demographic profile, are generally not the litigious type.

“However, there will always be those who want to place the blame on someone else,” said Burke.

Facilities with tanning beds also have special risks. Managers must display signs informing customers they are tanning at their own risk, said Shelton.

“It must also say something like, ‘One minute in the tanning bed equals x number of minutes in the sun,’” he said. “And the timer has to be controlled by operators, not by people using the bed. In this climate, you have to take all the safety precautions you can. You see all these dumb warning labels on products that say things like ‘Don’t use this toaster in a bathtub.’ It’s because somebody did it and now it has to go on the warning label.”

Mark Grossman, CEO of The Monument Sports Group in Virginia, insurer of sports venues in all 50 states, said it’s easier to insure facilities “that stick to one sport, such as lacrosse or girls’ field hockey,” instead of multi-purpose venues that might provide a combination of activities such as paintball, batting cages and climbing walls.

Because spectator injuries are highly possible at events like football, soccer or hockey competitions, insurance coverage for sports teams remains a major problem, said Darius Taylor, an associate at Bryan Nelson, P.A., in Hattiesburg, who specializes in insurance defense, sports law and entertainment law.

“However, I haven’t seen much litigation against sports teams in Mississippi, probably because there aren’t any major league teams in the state,” he said.

Bob Woods, general manager and head coach of the Mississippi Sea Wolves in Biloxi, whose minor league team plays hockey in the Mississippi Coast Coliseum, said its league — East Coast Hockey — saved “a significant amount of money” recently after it made some administrative changes and pooled its liability insurance coverage under an umbrella policy.

“That was a challenge in itself,” he said. “It’s tough to find people to give you good coverage, and insurance expense is a chunk of our budget. But it’s something you absolutely have to have. If you didn’t and something catastrophic happened, it would be, well, catastrophic.”

One reason insurance coverage is difficult for hockey teams to secure is because hockey action is so fast-paced, attendees may not have time to react to get out of the way of flying pucks.

“Every once in a while, somebody will get dinged by a puck and need stitches but we haven’t had anything serious,” said Woods. “Mesh netting has helped a lot and prevented pucks from getting into dangerous areas. Still, you’re going to have the odd ones go over the side boards that people might not see coming.”

Venues like the DeSoto County Civic Center, which has liability coverage for the facility, require promoters to obtain special event coverage.

“The cost depends on the category of activity,” said Burke. “Insuring a demolition derby would be more expensive than a church revival or business meeting.”

Even though the state-owned Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium has sovereign immunity protection over events such as Jackson State University football games, promoters hosting special events in the stadium must secure a standard $1-million liability policy, said stadium manager Watt Whatley.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at mbj@thewritingdesk.com.


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