Owners of midsize or growing businesses often overlook the simple things that, if done up front, would help them avoid a personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit.
“For those growing a business, especially those who own or lease their space and host customers, a little prevention early on can save a lot of trouble,” says Michon Spinelli, a partner at Ropers Majeski Kohn & Bentley PC.
Smart Business spoke with Spinelli about reducing your company’s exposure to personal injury lawsuits as well as what to do if you’re the subject of one.
What policies should be put in place to reduce a company’s exposure to personal injury and wrongful death litigation?
Policies can be a doubled-edged sword for a business owner. A good lawyer can use a business’s lack of polices, which is often the case with small or midsize businesses, against a business owner. The lawyer’s goal is to show that a business owner doesn’t really care because he or she doesn’t bother to put policies in place that can protect customers and employees.
On the other hand, a policy that’s in place, if it’s not a good policy or if it’s not followed, can be equally problematic. It doesn’t do you much good to have a policy in place if no one enforces it.
There isn’t one policy that every business should follow. But generally, business owners should at least know that the federal and state rules that apply to their business are being enforced. Post applicable rules for employees somewhere visible and make sure your employee handbook is current. Beyond that, a lot of it is common sense. You’re there everyday, you know your operation top to bottom, so be proactive and look for solutions to potential problems.
What common mistakes do companies make when they become the subject of a personal injury lawsuit?
When there’s an incident, what’s done is done. Never cover it up or try to influence the person involved. You’ll end up looking worse and get in more trouble than if you were forthright. At trial, a jury will punish you a lot more if they think you’re trying to hide things from them.
Don’t destroy evidence. The worst thing is trying to explain to a jury why certain key documents are missing or an uncomfortable email that addresses the plaintiff disparagingly has been deleted.
But if the case brought against you is meritless, have some trust in the process. You can make a case worse if you act rude toward the people trying to come after you. It comes off as if you have something to hide.
What type of conduct should be avoided while a case is active?
It’s important to remember that as soon as you’re involved in a lawsuit or litigation you’re under a microscope. You’d be foolish to think the other side isn’t watching you, so behave as if the jury has been picked, the trial is underway and you’re being judged based on everything you do. There’s nothing that upsets the judge more than a post on social media saying the judge is biased. Anyone who is reading that could be a potential juror. Conduct yourself as a responsible member of the business community at all times.
How can companies get the maximum value out of their legal teams that represent them in these cases?
Some companies are fortunate to have an in-house attorney. Many times that in-house counsel will coordinate with the outside counsel handling the case to make sure they’re on-task and working effectively.
If you’ve hired an attorney to handle your case and haven’t heard from him or her in a while, reach out. If he or she isn’t responsive, then you’re probably not on your attorney’s radar. Keep in communication. Ask questions. Call if you haven’t seen a bill in a while and you’re on monthly billing because you want to know what’s being worked on. If your attorney has a history of doing work without you knowing, agree on a workload and get a bill for it. A successful outcome requires a healthy ongoing dialogue with counsel.
Insights Legal Affairs is brought to you by Ropers Majeski Kohn & Bentley PC