Legal Issues Affecting Libraries and Librarians; Employment Laws, Liability & Insurance, Contracts, and Problem Patrons

By Mika, Joseph J.; Shuman, Bruce A. | American Libraries, February 1988 | Go to article overview

Legal Issues Affecting Libraries and Librarians; Employment Laws, Liability & Insurance, Contracts, and Problem Patrons


Mika, Joseph J., Shuman, Bruce A., American Libraries


American Libraries' third continuing education course:

Employment laws, liability & insurance, contracts, and problem patrons

Lesson II: Liability insurance, malpractice, and copyright (Lesson 1 appeared in the January issue of American Libraries. To participate, see box.)

Liability and insurance

WHEN ENTERING the profession, librarians rarely think about the impending responsibilities they might incur. Yet much of what we do may lead tis into situations that are potentially open to liability suits filed by our clients and employees. Liability, as defined in legal terms, means bound and obliged in law, or equity, responsible, answerable; or responsibilities, duties, obligations that are based in the law.

The patron who falls on a slippery floor, the individual who takes issue with our reference service, the parents upset by material they term "pornographic" provided by the children's librarian, the employee angry, over denial of a raise or promotion who brings suit against the director for financial mismanagement, or the person who accuses a librarian of malpractice and sues the board of trustees; these are just a few examples. The scope of liability, extends to library, directors, employees, and the boards or individuals governing the library.

As professionals, we are seen by our clients as experts in information retrieval, reader's service, and information management. The patron's initial reaction is to accept the information we provide as factual, as gospel, as an accurate statement or record. Our clients normally do not question the accuracy of the information, nor do, they seek a second opinion. However, when that information causes action leading to damaging results, a client may consider suing the librarian for professional malpractice, or liability,

Recently the public has become much more aware of their rights and their redress if a product or a service rendered is not up to standards. Ralph Nader not only opened the eyes of consumers; he also exposed librarians to review. Librarians as well as giant corporations are now equally open to public scrutiny. Clients are becoming increasingly aware of their right to accurate information and their right to sue because of actions taken on the advice of librariaris or based upon library data that proves to be faulty.

Who sues whom

As mentioned in the first article in this series, state laws, regulations, and statutes establish guidelines that boards of directors or trustees must follow. Noncompliance opens an officer or director deemed negligent to financial damage and personal liability. Individuals pursuing a legal claim against librarians soon realize that very little can be gained financially by suing the professional--(our salaries fail to do a very good job of supporting ourselves, much less provide a windfall for patrons). They therefore seek recompense from the library, or, more accurately, from the trustees or directors. Trustees are considered to be prominent citizens, well-to-do, or the spouses or heirs of wealthy individuals who have a "special" interest in community, affairs and the library, and suing trustees should be more lucrative then suing the librarian. More commonly, complainants conclude, "We'll sue them all, including the librarian"

Before accepting a post as library director or trustee, each individual should inquire about liability, insurance coverage One should analyze the specific coverage, not simply raise the issue If the library,, lacks an attorney who can explain the policy, you must analyze it yourself.

Insurance, serves as a buffer against the increasing number of lawsuits claiming damages or compensation. William Z. Nasri provides dramatic statistics "Professional Liability," (Journal of Library Automation, Summer 1987): "Successful claims against attorneys, for example, have increased by 35% . . . and the upward trend is continuing . …

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