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Liability insurance for small businesses


Introduction to Liability Insurance

If someone falls while visiting your business premises, or a customer is hurt by a product your business sells, you can be held responsible. That's the risk that liability insurance covers.

Liability insurance, also called Commercial General Liability (CGL), covers four categories of events for which you could be held responsible: bodily injury; damage to others' property; personal injury, including slander and libel; and false or misleading advertising. CGL coverage pays for the injured party's medical expenses. It excludes your employees, who are covered by workers' compensation. (For details see workers' compensation section of this site.) Bear in mind that even trespassers can sue you if they fall and get hurt on your business premises!

There are three types of legal damages people may sue you for that are typically covered by a CGL policy:

  • Compensatory damages: financial losses suffered by the injured party and future losses they may suffer resulting from an injury they claim in the lawsuit.

  • General damages: non-monetary losses suffered by the injured party, such as "pain and suffering" or "mental anguish."

  • Punitive damages: additional penalties and charges the defendant must pay.

Standard liability insurance does not protect a business against:

  • Claims from sexual harassment, wrongful termination of employees, failure to employ or promote, or race and gender lawsuits. These and other employee-related claims are covered by employment practices liability coverage. The cost of employment practices liability coverage depends on a business' number of employees, whether there is a history of the company having been sued in the past, and other business risk factors. The policy also pays for legal costs associated with a company's defense of a lawsuit related to employment practices.

  • Claims related to operating an automobile or truck. If you own vehicles for your business, whether for deliveries or client consultations, you will need separate commercial automobile coverage to protect you and your employees against liability claims resulting from car accidents.

Automobile liability insurance is required by most states. It covers medical expenses and damages to another person's property as a result of a motor vehicle accident caused by the insured's negligence. Some states mandate "no fault" auto insurance, which provides coverage for medical expenses, rehabilitation, funeral expenses, lost wages and in-home assistance to the driver and his or her passengers, regardless of who is held at fault in an accident.

Many policies offer or include uninsured or underinsured motorist protection, which provides coverage for the insured and his or her passengers if they are injured in a collision caused by an uninsured or underinsured motorist. If your vehicle is primarily used for business, make sure your company's name is on the policy instead of your personal name to avoid complications later should you need to file a claim. (For details, see commercial auto insurance section of this site.)

  • Professional Liability insurance or Errors and Omissions insurance is coverage for wrongful practices by professional service providers (e.g. healthcare providers, lawyers and consultants). This type of insurance covers faulty service (errors) or failure to provide a service altogether (omission). Malpractice insurance is a specific type of professional liability policy that protects physicians and other licensed professionals from liability associated with bodily injury, medical expenses and property damage, as well as the cost of defending lawsuits related to such claims.

As with other liability insurance policies, premiums for professional liability coverage depend on the type of professional service being provided and its level of risk.

  • Claims related to workers' compensation insurance. As explained in the workers' compensation insurance section of the site, workers' compensation insurance protects a business owner from claims by employees who suffer a work-related injury or illness. In all states, most companies are required to carry workers' compensation insurance for their employees. Typically, workers' compensation covers the employee's medical expenses, rehabilitation costs and missed wages. You will need a separate policy for this type of coverage. Check with your state insurance department for specific requirements in your area.

According to the Small Business Administration, business owners, independent contractors, domestic employees in private homes, farm workers and unpaid volunteers are usually exempt from workers' compensation eligibility.

If this is the first time you're purchasing workers' compensation insurance, the rate will depend on your payroll and your industry. After a few years, your premiums may be based on the actual experience of your company.

Other types of liability insurance include:

  • An umbrella liability policy provides extra protection above a standard policy. Umbrella policy coverage limits are typically within the $1 million to $5 million range and are appropriate for business owners who have large assets or may be especially vulnerable to lawsuits.

  • Crime Insurance protects businesses from theft and malicious damage, such as employee embezzlement.

  • "E-insurance" or Internet Business Insurance covers Web-based businesses for damages caused by computer hackers and viruses.
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Tips & Considerations Concerning Liability Insurance

  • Liability insurance premiums are typically based on a business' sales and payroll estimates provided prior to policy inception. If the actual amounts turn out to be higher after the policy has been issued, you may need to pay an incremental premium. Conversely, if the amounts are less than estimated, you could get a refund.

  • Other factors that influence your liability premiums include your type of business and the risks generally associated with it. For example, a toy manufacturer may pay $3 per $1,000 of sales. Thus, on $10 million of sales, the premium would be $30,000. A company that manufactures a less "risky" product or engages in a less risky business, such as a florist, may pay $1.50 per $1,000 of sales, or $15,000.

  • Insurance companies evaluate a business's risk for liability coverage based on numerous factors: the number of claims filed within an industry or probability of a claim for a similar type of company; the financial stability and longevity of a business; state laws; business products and/or operation; and a business' approach to handling and preventing potential risks.
    If you have solid, documented practices and safety procedures in place, you may be considered a lower risk by an insurance company for liability insurance and therefore be charged lower premiums.

Tips and Considerations for Lowering Liability Insurance Costs

  • Review all insurance policies annually and note any changes that may affect your coverage costs. For example your premiums could be impacted by the addition or reduction of employees, clients product offerings or inventory; alterations to your building; or changed state regulations.

  • Find out how plans differ to make sure you are purchasing the best policy for your particular business and at a competitive price.

  • Claim a tax deduction for your premiums on fire, casualty and burglary insurance.

  • Avoid purchasing overlapping policies. Read the terms carefully to make sure you are not covered for the same item in two separate policies. This type of policy examination also helps you ensure that you are not missing crucial coverage in other areas.

NOTE:

To help with claims processing, document all your business assets, and keep detailed records of all your insurance policies, as well as copies of premiums you've paid and any documents concerning losses and recoveries.