Risky Business: Blown to bits

In most parts of the country, trees are budding, flowers are blooming, and birds and small critters are chirping and chattering all around the outdoors. It is not uncommon to see multi-colored flowers, plants and shrubs lined up for sale in store parking lots. Often, the plants are in neat rows under tents or canopies.

An office manager was tasked each year with filling the plant beds outside her office with flowers. She made her way down the road to her neighborhood nursery and began the annual process that took her from searching for just the right color combinations to dirt under her nails and satisfaction that her plant beds were just right for one more year.

As the woman got out of her car, she felt the first few sprinkles from the showers that were predicted for later that afternoon. She glanced up and noticed dark grey clouds headed her way. She remembered thinking that she’d better hurry in order to get back to the office before she got too wet and since the plants were under a tent, she wouldn’t get wet while shopping.

A rental store owner was on the other side of town moving his equipment indoors in preparation for the storm that was barreling down on his location. Strong winds blew through his lot and moved on through town.

About 30 minutes later, the store owner received a phone call from the manager of the store selling plants in his parking lot. He said the tent he rented was “blown to bits” and he needed the rental store owner to send someone to clean up the mangled tent.

When the rental store owner arrived on the scene, the paramedics were just leaving. The office manager had been hit by a pole when the tent blew into the air, but she was able to drive herself away after being checked out by the paramedics.

The pole tent had been blown downwind and was piled up against a tree. Some of the pieces of the tent had been tossed into the tree, with some of the side poles still attached to the canvas. A couple of the poles had broken in half.

The tent had been installed on the parking lot and all of the stakes were still securely driven into the asphalt. The rope attachment points were intact, most with the rope still attached. Upon further examination, it appeared that the tent material itself had separated in numerous spots. Once the canvas was untangled, the rental store employees noticed that most of the corners were torn off and the tent was ripped beyond repair.

The rental store owner turned a claim in to his insurance company for the damage to his tent and also the woman’s injury. He wasn’t sure exactly what happened to her or how seriously she was hurt, but he wanted his insurance company to be aware of the incident.

When investigating the accident, the claims adjuster discovered that the rental store regularly hired day laborers and temporary employees. The foreman had been employed with the company for more than 10 years and he knew what he was doing, but very little training was provided for the temporary employees. In addition, the rental store did not keep maintenance records on the tent, retain receipts for repairs or save documentation of any kind.

Although the tent was originally of good quality, the ropes and hardware were weathered. In addition, a tent expert determined there was some tearing and worn areas of the fabric. The tent appeared to have been installed properly, but the condition of the canvas compromised the entire assembly. If the tent had been inspected properly prior to or during installation, the damaged areas would have been discovered.

Immediately after the incident, the office manager complained of headaches and back pain. Her doctor prescribed a physical therapy program for her back and shoulder complaints. The woman sued the rental store for her injuries, lost wages, and pain and suffering. She was awarded a six-figure settlement.

If the rental store had been able to prove the tent had been properly maintained and its employees had been correctly trained, the incident may have been viewed quite differently. Instead, the rental store’s insurance company paid the settlement and the store received a lot of bad publicity.

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.