October is upon us, which means that Halloween is nigh. Kids dressed in costumes celebrate the holiday. Adults get involved in this holiday too and, unknown to many, legal issues mean it can end up more "horrific" than you'd planned. Can you believe that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has announced that Halloween is one of America's most deadly and dangerous holidays? Halloween is reportedly the American holiday associated with the most injuries and deaths. On Halloween, children and adults alike face the risk of death or injury resulting from a fall, slip or trip, car accident, fire hazard or dog bite. So, what can you do to avoid these risks and any frightful legal issues? (For some ideas on insurance, check out Cover Your Company With Liability Insurance.)
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What Are the risks?
At Halloween you know that every man, child (and his dog) are going to be coming onto your property and knocking on your door. You now need to protect yourself from liability. To do this focus on fall and burn hazards. Trick-or-treaters are often decked out in costumes that mean they have difficulty seeing and walking. Therefore, you need to take extra effort to eliminate tripping hazards on your yard, porch and walkway. Remove anything that could be an obstacle such as tools, toys and ladders. Check around your property for flower pots, low tree stumps, support wires or garden hoses that may prove hazardous to young children rushing from house to house.
It might be tempting to create a spooky and dark environment, but you may be liable for injuries on your property – so make sure everywhere is well lit. And keep fire safety in mind too. Do not overload electrical sockets with fancy lights for risk of fire, and make sure any candles – say in jack 'o lanterns, are kept well away from anywhere a costume could brush against them and set alight.
If you are thinking of holding a Halloween party for friends or colleagues, just keep in mind that if you're going to be serving alcohol at your party, you may be held responsible for your guests' actions. In some cases, the host can be left responsible for a drunken guest's behavior even if it's after the guest has left the party. For instance, if an attendee leaves the party drunk and causes a car accident, you may be held responsible.
So how can you mitigate against this kind of risk? Consider limiting the number of drinks each guest can consume. Instruct the bartender not to serve intoxicated guests, or if you are really nervous you may want to consider having guests sign a contract that clears you of any alcohol-related liability.
And do try to keep your Halloween party out of the papers - a lesson that The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency learned a little too late. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Agency had a costume party that resulted in a federal report. As part of the costume competition, an employee donned a costume of a black and white striped prison uniform, a dreadlock wig and dark make-up applied to his face. ICE officials were the judges for the costume contest and chose the "escaped prisoner" as winner of the "most original costume competition." Pictures were taken, including one with the winner and Assistant Secretary Julie Myers, one of the judges. A few hours after the party, Myers realized her error in judgment, ordered the pictures destroyed, and reprimanded the winner of the contest, but unfortunately not before the media had gotten wind of the story. (To ensure you have adequate coverage for you and your guest, check out Filling The Gaps In General Liability Insurance.)
Even if you take every precaution, as a homeowner welcoming trick or treaters, or as an employee hosting a Halloween party, it is still in your best interest to take out adequate insurance. Check your policy – as it is likely that a basic policy will not cover you against injury or similar liabilities. Even though the coverage you require will set you back additional dollars, if anything happens this Halloween, you will be glad that you upgraded your policy.
Finally, it wouldn't be Halloween without recounting some of the "horror Halloween lawsuits" that U.S. courts have been spooked by in recent history.
In the year 2000, Cleanthi Peters sued Universal Studios for $15,000 by claiming to have suffered extreme fear, mental anguish and emotional distress after visiting Universal Studios' Halloween Horror Nights haunted house, which she said was too scary. Just a couple of years ago Jessica Lauderville sued the Realm of Terror attraction in Illinois, after claiming that she got tangled in rubber mats and fell as she was being chased by an employee with a chainsaw as a scare tactic. Historically, this was all part of the haunted house experience, but it seems in today's litigation obsessed society, it's now an opportunity to sue.
The Bottom Line
So the scariest part of Halloween has nothing to do with witches, ghosts and things that go bump in the night. If you really want to scare people, just mention the lawyers. (For some tips to help you avoid getting sued, read Don't Get Sued: 5 Tips To Protect Your Small Business.)