When Donald Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign held a large rally in Tulsa, Okla., in June of that year, attendees were asked to sign a waiver releasing the organizers from liability if a participant got sick from the Covid-19 virus.
Here’s what the campaign asked attendees to sign, according to a report by CBS News: “By clicking ‘register’ below, you are acknowledging that an inherent risk of exposure to Covid-19 exists in any public place where people are present. By attending the Rally, you and any guests voluntarily assume all risks related to exposure to Covid-19 and agree not to hold Donald J. Trump for President, Inc.; BOK Center; ASM Global; or any of their affiliates, directors, officers, employees, agents, contractors, or volunteers liable for any illness or injury.”
Meeting organizers moving forward with events throughout 2021 might consider adapting that language or have their legal team draft something similar. But how effective will any waiver be if attendees get sick?
According to Joshua Grimes, a veteran meetings-industry attorney, there are a handful of factors that affect whether or not a waiver is enforceable. “But even if it’s not enforceable, it can act as a deterrent,” he said, explaining that people are often discouraged from pursuing legal action once they have knowingly acknowledged and accepted a risk.
For MPI’s World Education Congress last November, attendees had to sign liability waivers before they arrived on site. “They must first affirm that they will only attend if they are feeling healthy before the meeting begins and then every day that they are on site,” says Annette Gregg, CMM, senior vice president for experience. “They must also agree that they won’t hold us liable if they become ill because they were informed ahead of time of all the precautionary measures we’re taking and are choosing to attend.” (For more on pre-event communications, see Question 4.
Is having attendees sign a waiver better than nothing? Yes, says Grimes, but “the enforceability depends on a number of factors, and every state is different. Some states respect waivers more than another states; it depends on the laws and the traditions of the state” where you’re holding your meeting.
Here are some tips Grimes says would make it more likely that a liability waiver will be supported in the courts:
• Write the waiver in plain language. If it’s written in a legalese and the average person wouldn’t understand what they are agreeing to, the waiver is less likely to be upheld, says Grimes.
• Make the waiver conspicuous. Attendees have to know that they’re waiving their rights, Grimes says. If you bury the waiver language in a whole bunch of terms and conditions or use a typeface that’s so small it’s hard to read, it’s less likely to be upheld.
• Have attendees affirmatively agree to the waiver. That is, the waiver can’t simply be a conspicuous paragraph on your registration site. Attendees need to either provide a signature or click a button indicating that they agree with the waiver. Grimes says that’s similar to the data privacy rules that attendees need to acknowledge under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). “They have to affirmatively agree as opposed to agree by default.”
• Present waivers to potential attendees well before the event. People need a chance to review the waiver and make a knowing and unhurried decision about whether to accept. “If you give the waiver to attendees when they show up for the event and they’ve already spent the money to get there, they’re arguably under duress at that point,” Grimes says.
• Provide an on-site reminder. “Post the waiver at the entrance to your meeting or event so when people show up, they have another opportunity to know that they’ve waived their rights,” says Grimes. At the Trump rally, signs at the entrance to the event repeated the entire waiver and also, in large red type, instructed attendees, "Do not enter if you are sick or experiencing any symptoms of Covid-19.”
• Have parents sign for minors. If your event or incentive program includes children, make sure a parent or guardian signs the waiver for any registrant under 18.