Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Proceed with Caution

Should you have professional liability insurance? Consider the following examples (most based on real situations, a few hypothetical):

Example 1: An employee, who was given a poor performance rating by you, initiates an EEO suit against your agency, claiming discrimination. The agency loses and initiates an adverse action against you.

Example 2: You learn that your graduate advisor has plagiarized a paper you wrote, but never published. Your complaints to the university are brushed off.

Example 3: Following budget cuts, you are assigned to a position for which you are not qualified. When you complain, your employing agency threatens adverse action.

Example 4: One of your subordinates falsifies a financial document, which you sign off on (without knowing that the information was false). Years later, an anonymous “tip” and subsequent audit uncover the inaccuracies, and you are held responsible.

Example 5: You (a technician) report a professor for violating radiation safety regulations and are fired a few days later.

Example 6: You provide campus police with information about a colleague in your department who has been engaging in “erratic, stalking behavior”. This person is eventually dismissed from his position. You are later named as a defendant in a lawsuit brought by this person against the university and individual department members.

Example 7: You (an instructor) charge a student in one of your classes of plagiarism. The student complains to your department, which has to go through a great deal of effort to resolve the situation. Your contract is not renewed the next semester. Your spouse, who works in the same department, is also let go.

Example 8: Someone uses your office computer to download pornography, which is discovered after an anonymous “tip” to campus police. You are dismissed from your position.

Example 9: You (a student) write an anonymous criticism of your university administration in a popular blog. The university uncovers your identity and not only threatens you with university disciplinary action, but sues you.

Example 10: You are a minor co-author on a student’s paper that is later found to contain plagiarized material and must be retracted. The student admits to the plagiarism, and the student’s advisor (a tenured professor and a senior author on the paper) also accepts responsibility. They are in a different department from you.  You go up for tenure shortly after this debacle and are denied, despite having a strong tenure package.  You suspect that the plagiarized paper played a role in this decision.

In some of the above cases, it cost between $10,000 and $70,000 in legal assistance to resolve the situation. Note that it doesn't matter if you are "innocent" of wrongdoing; you still will need legal advice and/or representation. Other situations can lead to greater costs, especially if criminal charges are involved. 

I never thought about needing liability insurance until I saw some colleagues go through some experiences like the ones above. I was especially disturbed to learn that not only might your employing institution or agency not provide legal assistance to you, but that they might even initiate adverse actions against you in some cases.

I know of only a few colleagues who have liability insurance.  Most of those at academic institutions I've spoken with think they don't need it (or don't want to think about it).  More colleagues in the Federal government, however, seem to have liability insurance.  Supervisors are particularly vulnerable to being accused of wrongdoing by subordinates--at some point in their careers. The government may provide a lawyer for you in such cases, but only if it's in the agency's (not your) best interests.  Thus, Federal employee associations recommend professional liability insurance, because members have ended up paying $30,000 or more to defend themselves against accusations.

1 comment:

MarthaWantsToBeAScientist said...

My contract contains a clause stipulating that I have a 'duty of confidentiality'. Does this mean I cannot discuss my work on an anonymous blog? What about any former institutions I have been at?

Thanks, Martha.