Risk Management: More than a place to sit
Risk Management: More than a place to sit
05/03/2012

Folding chairs are a leading source of product liability claims

To the uninitiated, polyfold chairs might seem like an innocuous rental item, but appearances can be deceiving — just ask any rental business owner who carries them in his or her inventory. These chairs take a beating, placing customers at risk of injury and rental businesses in financial jeopardy.

“A primary concern for rental companies should be the large potential product liability costs associated with the rental of polyfold chairs,” says Michael Mostek, marketing manager for PS Furniture, Milwaukee. “Claims related to the collapse of folding chairs are one of the leading sources of product liability claims nationally.”

PS Furniture offers an array of products, but specializes in portable commercial furniture, says Mostek. When it comes to folding chairs, improper usage by customers and weight loads pose some of the most worrisome vulnerabilities.

“Weight limits are more complicated than one might think,” he says. “Independent lab tests show that a ‘free-fall’ drop yields wildly different results than loading chairs with static weight. Our research has shown that 275 lbs. dropping onto a chair from 6 in. above the seat is the equivalent to a static load of 2,000 lbs.”

Dan Hooks, president of Party Reflections, with locations in Charlotte and Raleigh, N.C., says there’s no limit to the stresses some customers will put on chairs.

“They’ve been used as ladders, hammers, bats, doorstops, weapons, props and, on one occasion, an alternative to Frisbees,” he says. “It seems ridiculous that you’d have to educate someone on the use of a chair, but some customers have proven that common sense isn’t that common.”

Consequently, it’s essential that rental businesses conduct regular and thorough inspections before and after a rental. What to look for? Although Mostek cautions that it’s hard to tell by a simple inspection if a folding chair is structurally sound, he says rental companies should always ensure that:

  • All fasteners are secure and in place and that there are no signs of corrosion or rust.
  • Pivot points are tight.
  • Chairs have no bent plastic or metal, and that frames show no evidence of other damage, like corrosion, rust or wear. Hooks suggests for chairs that stack, inspecting the stack itself will help identify bent or stressed frames. He inspects wooden chairs for splinters or cracks as these may result in broken parts and subsequent falls or cuts from broken wood.

Mostek generally advises replacing chairs after five to seven years of renting, depending on rental frequency. Hooks marks the year of purchase on the bottom of each chair, using this as just one factor in determining when a chair needs to be taken out of service.

As he explains, two chairs purchased at the same time from the same manufacturer can wind up looking drastically different. “Some just seem to get used more than others and in different situations,” he says. To minimize wear discrepancies, Hooks says his company tries to rotate its stock to encourage even usage.

Making every employee who comes into contact with equipment responsible for safety and maintenance provides an added opportunity to spot and correct problems, says Hooks, adding that rental operators shouldn’t just rely on warehouse staff for quality control. Even his drivers get involved.

“When [they] see a problem with a piece of equipment in the field on delivery, they know they’re responsible for returning it to the warehouse and replacing it with a safe product,” Hooks says.

Damaged products are marked with bright orange “Repair” stickers and each truck carries a roll of these stickers. The items are placed in a special area of the warehouse and weekly they’re taken to the shop, repaired and returned to service, if possible, he says.

Along with rigorous maintenance and inspection, perhaps the best insurance against safety-related problems comes at the point of purchase, says Mostek.

Rental companies, he says, should consider the following:

  • Are they purchasing chairs from a reputable company?
  • Has the chair been tested by an independent lab?
  • If buying from a distributor, is there proof that the chair’s manufacturer has liability insurance with a U.S.-based insurer?

If a claim arises and the manufacturer is uninsured, the rental company must defend the claim alone, Mostek explains. Also, chairs should come with labels specifying weight limits and warning against improper usage.

“The rental company cannot control how the renter uses the chairs, but these warning labels protect the rental company when liability claims result from product misuse,” Mostek says.

Mary Ann Gormly, CERP, is risk management coordinator for ARA Insurance, Kansas City, Mo. For more information, call 800-821-6580 or visit ARAinsure.com.