Imagine it's the anniversary of opening your bike shop, and you want to step it up a notch by hosting the XYZ Bike Shop Memorial Death Ride. However, you're a little worried about the liability issues no matter how excited your staff feels. Of course, as your staff are likely mostly twenty- and you're not; you hope that age brings a little wisdom.
This can be a great marketing and branding opportunity for your business. But there are risks associated with this kind of activity, and you should take measures to limit your liability. In most states, your liability concerns should not be a problem, as long as you have the right pre-activity paperwork (release or waiver), educate the participants on the activity and the risk, and deal with any problems post-event properly.
As you can see, there are three primary issues you need to concern yourself with:
- Participant education
- Proper paperwork
- Problem response
Education is the easiest, as long as you do it well. To educate a rider on the event you need to understand the event. The more you know, the more you can inform, and the more you can help participants assume the liability and take it away from you. General information about the event is easy and should always be available. From a risk-management perspective, you need to provide a little more information:
- What the event has or provides.
- What the event will not have or provide.
- General risks of this type of activity.
- Specific risks of this event.
What the Event has or Provides
Determining the route, how the event will be run, the number of volunteers needed, the number of aid stations and whether or not a land owner or community needs to be notified are your first steps for any ride or event. Once you have gathered the information to put on the event, pass it on to possible participants and an attorney who understands your business and these events.
The more your participants know, the more they can be prepared, and the easier it will be for them to decide to enter the event or cheer from the sidelines. Providing more information also gives you the best and first defense to any claim. Participants who know and understand this have a harder time suing, and are less successful if they do, because they knew what they were getting into. Injured participants who knew and understood the risks of the activity that injured them cannot sue for those injuries.
Websites are usually the easiest way to educate possible participants. Anything you do to educate them and answer their questions helps prove they knew and understood the risks. Examples of some easy information you can provide is:
- A map of the route: It's usually easy and a good idea to provide both a map view and satellite view.
- Video of the ride so people can see the area, streets or trails.
- Elevation profile.
- List of equipment needed.If you list first-aid kit, people usually catch on that they might be hurt.
A Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section is always great. Every time a question is asked, include the question and its answer in this section. Start with what you think people might ask but keep expanding it from there. Keep this section year after year until you have created a book of information for participants.
Make sure in one section of your Website you have the following three things so no one can miss them:
- Any laws or rules that must be followed.
- Whether the course is open or closed (will there be cars on the road riders?).
- Reiteration that everyone must obey all laws.
What the Event Will Not Have or Provide
This step is always a little harder. Look at similar events or activities and find out what they have listed as available, and list everything your event will not have available. For example, if another event is offering aid stations every five miles, and you are only offering aid stations every ten miles, make sure that information is easily understood. Which aid stations have first aid available if only a few have first aid? What food or energy needs can be met and what the rider may want to bring on their own are important.
General and Specific Risks
Always list the risks of the activity. Cycling can be dangerous. Point out those issues in general warnings to everyone. Then look at the specific issues of your activity. Will the road ride be open or closed to traffic? Does the mountain bike ride require the rider to ride over cliffs or jumps? Will there be transportation back to the start if you break down or crash. Another way of looking at this is what makes your event special, different from everyone else's. Those may be marketing points, but they also may be risks that need to be pointed out.
Paperwork is the next step, and that starts with a well-written release of liability. Your release needs to include some very specific issues for a bike shop and for events, including: Acknowledgement that every participant signing the release has seen and reviewed the information on the Website for the event. The correct legal name of your bike shop, the name your shop is known by and all sponsors need to be listed as protected by the release. A jurisdiction and venue clause so any lawsuit is brought in your back yard, not somewhere else. The proper language required to make the release effective in your state. Language that outlines and supports the assumption of the risk defense.
How you deal with any problems that come up can be the most important component of minimizing your liability. It's important, when dealing with any problem associated with your event or your shop, to remember that the individual in question is a customer. You need to keep customers. You can't keep customers if you ignore them or don't deal with them in a way they feel is not right. Think of the money you spend on advertising to get people in the door and remember that people complain about bad service to everyone. It is cheaper to keep a customer than it is to get a new customer.
Assume, for example, that someone got injured at your event. If you ignore them, they'll likely tell others how bad your shop is. However, if you go see the person, listen to their complaints, and don't necessarily fight with them, you stand a much better chance at keeping a customer.
Here are a few quick points to keep in mind when talking with them:
- Find out exactly what happened that caused the problem.
- Ask what you did wrong, and don't necessarily defend yourself.
- Remind them that an injury does not necessarily mean you did anything wrong.
- If you can, without creating a problem, ask them "Isn't that a common injury/risk/accident that occurs when mountain biking/racing/riding...?"
- Tell them you are sorry they got hurt without admitting guilt or accusing them of anything.
- Ask them to stop by when they are better to talk more.
When you leave, write down what happened. You never know when it might be important. Do not record the conversation, you want to show customers you care about them; you don't want your customers to think you are there to rip them off.
If they have a major injury, follow up with them and find out how they are doing. Friends check in on friends when they are hurt. You should do the same with customers.
Mr. Moss is an attorney, based in Golden, Colorado, specializing in the small business issues of outdoor recreation and adventure travel companies, retailers and manufacturers. He is the editor of Recreation-Law.com, an online legal resource for the outdoor recreation industry, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 720-334-8529.