Our night guy doesn't make a lot of money so when his car broke down you let him drive the station van home. Much to your surprise you see the van on the front page of the paper the next day. Your night guy was drinking, drove the van and got into an accident killing the other driver. We address that tragic possibility with John Garziglia in our "Ask the Attorney" segment for this week.
#1) What is your responsibility overall?
#2) What is your responsibility to your employee?
John Garziglia: Immediately upon the learning of this horrible, unthinkable and potentially business-threatening tragedy, call your insurance company and call your lawyer, before speaking with anyone else, and prior to making any public statements.
Once you make these essential phone calls to your insurance company and to your lawyer, and after listening to what each has to say, your radio station will be confronted with many unpleasant choices. While any proffer of general legal advice in the face of a tragedy where a life is lost cannot be given, some of the issues that come up may be the extent to which station management or its employees knew or should have known of any substance abuse habits of the radio personality, any knowledge of a prior DWI history, and of course, both the employee’s and the station’s insurance coverage.
Journalistically, one of your immediate choices is whether your radio station will cover the tragedy on its regular news broadcasts. To the extent that management desires to instruct its news department on this, legal counsel should be consulted in advance. Any instructions to cover, or not to cover, and what is said over the air, could impact the station’s potential culpability.
Since a station van was involved, and since the business reputation of the station may be on the line, hiring a professional who counsels businesses on public relations during a tragedy or calamity may be advisable. This person must, of course, work in conjunction with the station’s legal counsel. The perspective of a such a public relations professional could go a long way toward ameliorating the community’s reaction against the station, as well as possibly keeping station management and staff from saying or doing things that might otherwise exacerbate liability.
As for your radio personality who now is likely behind bars or is at the very least facing significant legal problems, follow the advice of your lawyer and insurance company as to the station’s involvement, if any, in any offer to provide assistance if you are so inclined.
No tragedy where a life is lost as a result of a radio station involvement ever plays out the same. What might be the right thing to do in one set of circumstances might be wrong in another. Thus, as always, I give the caveat that I am not providing legal advice as legal advice can only be given by your own lawyer, but rather providing the only advice I can give which is to immediately call your lawyer and insurance company upon learning of a kind of tragedy such as here in which the radio station has potential significant liability either through the use of its property or due to the actions of an employee.
John F. Garziglia is a Communications Law Attorney with Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice in Washington, DC and can be reached at (202) 857-4455 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Have a question for our "Ask The Attorney" feature? Send to email@example.com.
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