The death of an attendee at NeoCon 2018, held in Chicago’s theMART in June, recently sparked a wrongful death lawsuit against Merchandise Mart Properties, Hollander Design Group—the designer of an exhibit floor showroom swing—and The David Edward Company that operated the showroom.

The suit, filed by representatives of Corporate Design Choice employee Jacqueline Albertine, 57, alleges that the plank swing manufactured by Hollander Design Group was faulty in its design and that Merchandise Mart was negligent in allowing the feature to be used in the exhibit showroom.

Each defendant in the filing is being sued for an amount in excess of $50,000 plus interest and the cost of the lawsuit. The full dollar amount will not be attached until the suit reaches the discovery phase, as exceeding a threshold of $50,000 is a requirement to send the case to the Law Division of the Cook County court.

The incident happened June 12, 2018, when Albertine, who had worked as a furniture and design consultant for Corporate Design Choice, fell from a plank swing during a demonstration in the exhibit floor showroom of The David Edward Company, hitting her head on the floor. Albertine was taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where she was later pronounced dead from blunt force trauma to the head. The death was ruled an accident.

NeoCon is an annual commercial design showcase of manufacturers in the furniture, fabrics, flooring, interior building products, interior finishes and technology industry.

“Several factors contributed to the tragic death of 57-year-old Jacqueline Albertine," said attorney Richard F. Burke, partner at Clifford Law Offices in Chicago, representing the plaintiff. "The David Edward studio encouraged show attendees to try out a plank swing that they had hung in their studio.

"Not only did the swing itself have a very unstable design, but David Edward did not have any protective padding or surface positioned underneath the swing for the safety of persons who sat down on the swing," he added.

"Moreover, neither the Merchandise Mart nor others had any proper plan for providing emergency medical treatment to patrons of the show," Burke said. "The need for a well-thought-out safety plan was especially important where the show organizers and studios had invited a large number of persons into a building with a complicated and expansive layout that caused a delay in the arrival of medical care for Ms. Albertine.”

The Importance of Duty of Care When Planning Meetings and Events

The allegations in the lawsuit provide a stark reminder of the importance of event venues, meeting planners and the organizations they plan for to adopt and carry out Duty of Care procedures to ensure the safety of attendees and protect their organizations from liability.

“The potential legal liability for the venue in this lawsuit demonstrates the evolving and expanding legal duties of meeting premises, including meeting organizers and planners,” said Brenda Rivers, founder and CEO of Andavo Meetings & Incentives. “The facts, as alleged in the complaint if true, implicate the legal obligations of the venue of the duty to investigate, the duty to prepare and the duty to warn.

“Because the decedent was a business invitee, a special relationship existed with the Merchandise Mart, which when combined with foreseeability of the injury gives rise to potential legal liability,” she added.

"Meeting organizers and planners should adhere to the same duty of care obligations to keep participants safe,” she continued. “A risk management strategy should be integrated in their event design process, beginning in the sourcing and site selection stages. Investigating and inquiring of the current state of emergency preparedness of the venue, the suppliers as well as any hazardous or risky activities is vital to mitigating risk.

"The next step of inquiry is to identify and communicate with the primary first responders such as venue security, law enforcement and medical resources.

“Knowing who to call, how to reach them and how they will access the location of any crisis is also the obligation of the meeting organizer and planner,” Rivers said.

“The organizer and planner must include an updated event emergency response and crisis communication plan to be rehearsed with the venue in a pre-event safety pre-con meeting.”

3 Essential Tips to Ensure Attendee Safety at Your Event

According to Rivers, meeting planners and the organizations they plan for should consider the following to help ensure attendee safety and decrease legal liability. Following are three examples. The full list and explanations can be found in the original story about the death at NeoCon.

  • Investigate Hazards: "Once you identify the potential risks, create a list of foreseeable crises, or accidents. Investigate each one by asking: what’s the intention of displaying this product, how it’s going to be used, what safety standards are necessary for the use of this product."
  • Be Wary of Attendee Interaction/Demonstration: "The meeting organizer must conduct [an] investigation in advance to determine how the product will be demonstrated. Do you propose to invite our attendees to demo this? If so, that is a red flag signaling the responsibility to know more about potential dangers and how to mitigate them."
  • Inform Decisionmakers of Risk: "Once you’ve done the investigation and know what the risk is, then you inform your top sponsors—whoever the executive who is responsible for the event—that there is a risk, and then you must make recommendations on how you can mitigate."

The allegations against Merchandise Mart Properties, as listed in the court filing are as follows, and can be used by meeting planners as a guide to potential hazards to look for before an event commences:

  • Failed to provide a mat or other cushioned surface over the hard-surface underneath the subject plank swing;
  • Failed to require David Edward to provide a mat or other cushioned surface over the hard-surface underneath the plank swing;
  • Failed to supervise David Edward in failing to recognize that a mat or other cushioned surface was not placed over the hard-surface underneath the plan swing;
  • Failed to properly install the subject plank swing so that it would remain level and present no tip hazards or instability points when utilized;
  • Failed to remove the subject plank swing from one of its showrooms when Defendant, Merchandise Mart, knew or should have known that the subject plank swing presented a danger;
  • Failed to perform a proper evaluation of the potential need for emergency medical care and treatment during the 2018 NeoCon show;
  • Failed to create, prepare, distribute and implement a proper plan for providing emergency medical care and treatment during the 2018 NeoCon show;
  • Failed to provide emergency medical care personnel on site during the 2018 NeoCon convention;
  • Failed to provide tenants, vendors, show attendees and business invitees with proper information as to how to obtain prompt emergency medical care and treatment during the 2018 NeoCon Show;
  • Failed to create, install, utilize and have in force and effect any proper means for any person present within the Merchandise Mart to communicate to Merchandise Mart personnel, employees or agents that emergency medical care or treatment was needed;
  • Failed to have any designated person, department or other personnel with the responsibility of responding to the need for emergency medical care and treatment by persons within the Merchandise Mart;
  • Failed to create, distribute, utilize and have in place any plan, process or procedure for taking emergency medical responders to a location within the Merchandise Mart where the emergency medical care and treatment was needed;
  • Failed to create, design, install and utilize any proper access routes to permit entry and exit of emergency medical care providers when responding to and providing emergency medical care and treatment to persons within the Merchandise Mart building;
  • Failed to create, utilize, distribute and have in force and effect any proper safety plan for providing emergency medical care and treatment during the 2018 NeoCon show when Defendant knew or should have known such a plan was needed at an event with a large number of attendees
  • Was otherwise careless and negligent.

Merchandise Mart Properties could not be reached for comment before publication time.

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