aivers, disclaimers and "responsibility clauses." Liability, discrimination, fiduciary obligations. These terms get thrown around a lot when you have a room full of lawyers. And I found myself surrounded by attorneys at the Fourth Annual National Law Symposium, cosponsored by Travel Weekly and ARTA.

The room was full to capacity -- additional chairs were brought in. Though attorneys were in the majority, it wasn't just lawyers in attendance -- travel agents, tour operators, representatives of ARC, journalists, insurance company officers and executives from major travel agency groups showed up at the Washington Marriott.

The symposium's topic was "Travel Law and the Terrorism Crisis: Issues and Strategies." The presentations were professional but not overly laden with jargon. Many of the presentations were as riveting to a layman as to those with "Esquire" attached to their name.

First, the good news: "The body of law protecting travel agents is pretty good," said Mark Pestronk, a Fairfax, Va., travel law attorney who is also Travel Weekly's legal columnist and host of the Legal Ease forum on TWcrossroads.com.

However, confusion among consumers about who is liable for trip mishaps is probably the biggest problem facing travel agents. Travel agents are agents. An agent isn't responsible if it rains, if the principal supplier doesn't deliver as promised ... or if a terrorist act disrupts a traveler's schedule.

"If it's not your fault, you're not responsible," Pestronk said, "unless. ..."

Unless. Unless you knew about risk and didn't disclose it. That's where agents can get into trouble.

There was plenty of advice for travel agents. Alexander Anolik of San Francisco, ARTA's general counsel, was among the speakers strongly urging the use of disclaimer forms.

Other speakers suggested that when in doubt, have the client call the supplier directly rather than trying to interpret, for instance, the differences between two travel insurance policies.

The most colorful speaker of the day was Rodney Gould of Framingham, Mass. From a lawyer's perspective, "it's better to have a dead client than one whose toast is burnt," he said.

He went on to explain that it's more difficult to win a case in small-claims court where "rough justice" may be biased against business and in favor of consumer complaints, no matter what their merit. However, if you're being sued for a lot of money, it'll get into a court of higher jurisdiction, where the case is more likely to be judged on the fine points of law.

Somehow, I think that may be small comfort to someone who's being sued for a lot of money. As another presenter, Beverly Susler Parkhurst of Chicago reported, one of her travel agent clients once told her, "We don't think like you lawyers do."

And that's true. Travel agents are service oriented. They don't want to tell a client to call the supplier for information, they don't want to present an exhaustive list of what can go wrong, and they don't want to ask honeymooners to sign a sheet of paper filled with fine print that protects the agent from liability.

Travel agents are willing to do a lot of things for their clients, but one thing they shouldn't be expected to do is give up their right of self-preservation.

A car rental agency wouldn't dream of letting a car off the lot if the renter didn't initial three times and sign on the dotted line. They've trained their customers what to expect. Travel agents might do well to follow their lead.

• • •

Get More!
The following white papers from the National Travel Law Symposium can be read in Adobe .pdf format:
Protecting Customer Lists and Other Trade Secrets After September 11 (File size=70K)
Travel and Terrorism: A Canadian Perspective (File size=49K)
Terrorism Incidents and the Legal Problems Confronting the Travel Agent Community as a Result Thereof (File size=25K)
Travel Agencies and Civil Rights in Light of September 11 (File size=33K)
Personal Liability of Travel Agency Officers Based on Trust Obligations Under the Agent Reporting Agreement (File size=43K)
Checklist for Downsizing or Closing Your Business (File size=9K)
The Changing World of Travel Insurance (File size=53K)

(Note: These files require Adobe Acrobat Reader. Click here to visit Adobe's Web site and download the latest version.)

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