By DAN REYNOLDS, senior editor of Risk & Insurance®
This one was so made for the blogosphere, and for the plaintiffs' bar.
When about 60 Hispanic and African-American kids from Northeast Philadelphia got "disinvited" from a suburban Montgomery County swim club in late June, the actions of the swim club's board of directors made national news and sparked a class-action civil-rights lawsuit.
The incident at the Valley Swim Club in Huntingdon Valley, Pa., has also drawn the attention of researchers at A.M. Best Co., who have included mention of the incident in their "Best's Underwriting Guide--Swimming Clubs and Swimming Pools--2009."
By their very nature, swim clubs are full of risks. They house flammable cleaning chemicals that pose a fire risk. The deep end of the pools are sometimes, tragically, the final resting place of unprepared swimmers.
On the A.M. Best scale of one to 10, one being the lowest type of risk and 10 being the highest, the researchers list general liability, premises and operations, at swim clubs as an eight--a high risk, that is. It's the highest risk rating A.M. Best suggests underwriters should give any swimming-club-related exposure.
"Discrimination suits possible for private swim clubs," is part of how A.M. Best now tags that category.
Now also enter the good people of Huntingdon Valley, a locale that straddles two townships in suburban Montgomery County, Pa.
With urban recreational budgets evaporating faster than spilled soda on a hot summer sidewalk, the Valley Swim Club in Huntingdon Valley agreed to host campers from the Creative Steps Day Camp in Northeastern Philadelphia on a limited basis because the day campers' normal summertime pool had been shut down due to budget constraints. The camp paid the club $1,950 to give the city kids access to the club's pool every Monday throughout the summer.
The campers are Hispanic and African-American, and the swim club members, as they are in many suburban swim clubs, are predominantly white. Well, when June 29 came and the campers attended their first day of outdoor swim fun, some of the club members became unglued.
According to court records, mothers were seen snatching their pale-skinned, chlorine-soaked babes from the water. Racial slurs were heard directed at some of the campers. The following day, the swim club refunded the camp its money and told it not to bother bringing the kids by the following week.
"In an official statement released on the matter," A.M. Best reported, "operators at the swim club in question insisted that their regular members' safety, along with concerns about pool overcrowding, were the two motivating factors in their decision to revoke the campers' memberships."
Well, the parents of the campers aren't buying it and the club got slapped with a lawsuit.
Brian Mildenberg, the Philadelphia attorney whose firm filed the lawsuit in federal court in Philadelphia, said he and his associates will await the outcome of what he referred to as an "expedited" investigation by the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission before moving forward with their civil-rights case.
RISK MANAGEMENT LESSONS
Here are some suggestions from A.M. Best's swim club underwriting guide if you want to avoid becoming the next Valley Swim Club.
A.M. Best said clubs should have a clear policy manual that delineates the reasons why someone can have their membership revoked. These rules should be made available to all club members so that, if action is taken, there are clear parameters for it.
In the aftermath of the Huntingdon Valley incident, some club members claimed that the decision to rescind the camp its money had been made unilaterally by some board members without notifying the membership.
A.M. Best also suggested that all applications for membership in a swim club be reviewed by more than one staff member. The guide urged underwriters to "review the insured's membership application and assess the fairness and thoroughness of its application review procedures."
Might we add one more caveat? Make sure crisis communication training is on the books for the swim club's management. After rescinding the Philadelphia camp's money, a representative of the Valley Swim Club was quoted by the media as saying club officials had feared the city kids would change the "complexion" and "atmosphere" of the club. That was about the poorest choice of words possible under the circumstances.
Joe Tucker, the Philadelphia attorney representing the club, did not return a call requesting comment.
August 20, 2009
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