The only time I have served on a jury involved a case in which a man was injured in a car accident with a utility company truck. The man sought compensation from the utility for his medical expenses. I remember seeing the man, his wife and his daughter sitting in the jury room for the two-day trial and feeling for them all. I also remember the man with the utility company who sat with the company’s two lawyers. He was in his 50s wearing khaki pants and a casual button-down shirt. The man was not the driver of the truck nor the CEO of the company. He looked like he could have been my uncle. And that was a smart move on the utility company’s part.
As a jury member, I empathized with the plaintiff because I could see his face. But the utility company was a large, faceless entity, which would have made it easier to rule in favor of the plaintiff—if it was not for the man in the khakis who put a face to the utility company.
This idea struck me even more when I spoke with Art Hicks, president and COO of Cybex International, Medway, MA, about the Barnhard vs. Cybex International product liability case. Hicks still seemed flabbergasted by the fact that a jury initially awarded the plaintiff in the case, Natalie Barnhard, $66 million for injuries she suffered after a Cybex leg extension machine tipped over on her when she stretched on it, rendering her a quadriplegic. Cybex later settled with her for $19.5 million.
Hicks said that juries often hand out large awards like this in cases where an individual sues a company because people do not see companies as people, even though companies are made up of people who are affected by awards like these.
“I have kids, I have a mother, I have relatives we are trying to support,” Hicks says. “The clubs, they have members. We are people.”
That is worth remembering when something goes wrong at your club. You should strive to establish relationships with your members to improve their experience at your club, but a side benefit is that you become the club to them. Although friends occasionally sue friends, it is much harder to make the decision to sue a company when you know the people who own it or work there. By the same token, it is much harder to dismiss someone’s injury at your facility—especially if it was your company’s fault—if you know that member personally.
Even if your club is not at fault, the goodwill that you will earn by being concerned about an injured member will pay off. Bill McBride, president and COO of Club One, San Francisco, told me about a member who had a seizure in one of his clubs and fell on another member, injuring that second member, who wanted the club to pay for his medical costs, even though the club was not negligent. Instead of brushing off the member, however, McBride gave him a free month’s dues because he said he did not like to see any of his members get hurt on his property.
This business is about personal relationships, but when incidents occur, it is easy for injured parties to look to the deep pockets of faceless businesses for compensation. For your sake and theirs, do not be that faceless business. Be their khaki-wearing uncle instead.