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Managing the Risks of Special Events

A parade, festival, fair, outdoor concert or other public event can build community, boost the local economy and foster residents' attachment to their city. Even so, any event that draws crowds can lead to some out-of-the-ordinary risk exposures, and so cities should plan ahead to control liability associated with special events.  

Those involved in planning the event need to consider everything from ensuring that a road is adequately blocked off, if necessary, to adhering to the accessibility requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, to screening volunteers for violent criminal histories, and managing the liability of the onsite consumption of alcohol. 

It's also important to clearly establish the city's role in a public event. Is the city managing the event by exercising primary control over staff or over a hired contractor for event services? Is the city a sponsor of the event? Or is another organization, such as a service or civic organization, working on behalf of the city? A city's liability for a special event depends on where the city falls in terms of these roles. 

These are a few of the general guidelines that cities should follow to keep event attendees, volunteers and vendors safe and to protect the city from liability exposure: 

  • Develop a special events policy that outlines what activities are allowed. It should also address if or how the city's name will be used in promotions, what coverage and limits of insurance are required, and what services will be provided and required. 

  • Have an application/permit process. This allows the city to regulate and properly manage the event. Require all event organizers to complete an application regardless of the event size. 

  • Have a special events committee or coordinator help the city identify and address risks. The person or people in this role can help develop effective risk controls, and assess the potential impacts of event risks on the city, residents and local businesses. They can also help decide what resources, special services or staffing may be required to handle the event safely. 

  • Make sure the city has proper insurance. Require third parties, contractors and vendors to provide a certificate of insurance, name the city as an additional insured, and sign a hold-harmless and indemnity agreement, which are contractual documents that hold one party harmless for the actions of another party. Get the certificate of insurance directly from the insurance agent and verify the coverage again the day before the event. Require a $1 million minimum for general liability insurance for businesses and organizations participating in the event. 

  • If a city property is rented for an event that isn’t sponsored by the city, require a $1 million minimum for general liability insurance. Do this by obtaining a certificate of insurance or refer the individual to GatherGuard for coverage. 

  • Get a waiver or pre-event release from individuals participating in any sporting or participatory event. This can be for events like marathons, bike races and parades. 

  • Conduct facility or site inspections before and after an event to mitigate premise liability claims. Prepare the site as though all events are sponsored by the city. 

Hiring a contract event coordinator or contractor to handle a city-sponsored special event may remove the burden of planning the event from city staff. However, the municipality should vet and screen the contractor to ensure the contractor has the experience and expertise to oversee the event. The city should obtain a copy of the contractor's certificate of insurance before the event and call to verify coverage with the issuing agent the day before the event.  

Be on the lookout for activities that aren't covered by the city's insurance policy, and make sure that the contractor's policy covers activities excluded by the city's insurance. If not, the city could be held liable in the event of a claim.  

Be careful not to exercise too much control over the event and the contractor, as this could result in the event no longer being considered to be managed independently. 

Here are some activities that are commonly excluded by liability coverage: 

  • Bungee jumping and similar amusement devices 

  • Fireworks displays 

  • Skateboarding 

  • Parachuting and hang gliding 

  • Airplane, helicopter or ballooning rides and shows 

  • Archery 

  • Mechanical amusement devices 

  • Zoos 

  • Traveling carnivals and circuses 

  • Rodeos 

  • Trampolines and rebounding equipment, commonly known as bounce houses 

  • Concerts organized and promoted by third parties 

This information reflects a portion of the Special Events Liability Toolkit provided to members of the SC Municipal Insurance and Risk Financing Fund. For more information, contact Bethany Pendley, loss control manager, at or 803.933.1210.