From tripping over the entryway to a practice room and breaking a wrist to suffering an allergic reaction to the almond oil in massage lubricant, there are many reasons a client might sue a massage therapist. However, it also seems obvious that the risk of facing a legal claim is far lower for massage therapists than, say, chiropractors or surgeons.
The potentially low risk of facing a lawsuit may tempt some massage therapists to forgo purchasing massage liability insurance, but this may prove to be a poor business decision. Many massage therapists are required—by their state governing board, employer or landlord—to possess liability insurance in order to practice. For all massage therapists getting such coverage can be considered a step not only toward greater financial protection, but also toward increased professionalism.
Here, we cover the main reasons a massage therapist should carry massage liability insurance, along with basic facts about what such coverage tends to entail, and some of the most common reasons clients bring lawsuits against massage therapists.
One lawsuit is all it takes
It’s challenging to find exact numbers related to how many massage therapists are sued by clients each year; however, by speaking with agencies that offer liability insurance for massage therapists, we can begin to get a clearer picture of the frequency of lawsuits against massage therapists, as well as the nature of these legal claims.
“I’ve got records and information relative to our program, and the numbers suggest that licensed massage therapists are sued rather infrequently,” said J. Kevin McCarthy, managing director of MASSAGE Magazine Insurance Plus. “Both the frequency and the severity of the claims against licensed massage therapists are fairly small, hence the rather modest cost to acquire liability insurance.”
Even though the chances of a client suing his or her massage therapist appear to be rather low, all it takes is one lawsuit to wipe out a massage therapist’s finances and practice when massage liability insurance is not in place. Also, it is important to keep in mind that all people who practice massage—from massage instructors and students to solo practitioners and employees—are liable when sued and need to protect themselves.
According to McCarthy, the nature of claims coming in through MASSAGE Magazine Insurance Plus, as far as clients suing massage therapists, tend to be evenly divided between professional, or malpractice, liability claims and general liability claims, with a smaller number of claims falling into the category of product liability.
Why clients sue
The kind of coverage massage therapists receive from liability insurance is a good indicator of types of lawsuits practitioners might face. Most massage liability insurance programs include coverage for three kinds of legal claims: general liability claims, professional liability claims and product liability claims.
General liability coverage applies to instances where a client may sue a massage therapist due to an accident that occurred on practice premises, such as tripping on a doormat and ending up with a chipped tooth.
“An example of general liability would be when someone gets hurt, but it’s unrelated to the massage,” McCarthy said, “such as a slip and fall or a fire that happens with the client on the premises.”
Professional liability coverage, also known as malpractice insurance, applies to instances where a client may sue a massage therapist due to damages or injury incurred during the course of a session. Reasons cited in malpractice lawsuits basically boil down to misconduct or lack of ordinary skill.
“In other words, if during the course of a treatment, a massage therapist does something that injures the client, that would fall under malpractice liability,” McCarthy said.
Product liability coverage applies to instances where a client may sue a massage therapist due to damage or injury resulting from use of a product, such as a massage lubricant that causes an allergic reaction or a faulty table that crashes to the ground in the middle of a massage.
Risk rises with no massage liability insurance
Any legal claim from a client is tough to imagine, whether it be for an accident that took place on a massage practice’s premises or because of some kind of harm done during the massage or due to a product used in the session room. However, even though these claims appear to be fairly few, they can and do occur. Taking a gamble that no client will ever sue, the practitioner who chooses to forgo liability insurance faces great risk.
“Massage therapists are leaving themselves open to significant financial risk if they don’t insure,” McCarthy said. “We all know that the income levels of the majority of therapists are fairly modest, and therefore, if they were to get sued, and there was a judgment against them, it could financially ruin their practice and also invade their personal finances as well.”
Besides huge financial losses that can occur when an uninsured massage therapist gets sued, another risk of skipping liability insurance is what McCarthy calls the “aggravation factor.” Without liability insurance, the individual massage therapist is responsible for managing the complicated legal process associated with a lawsuit.
“If I’m sued, and I have insurance, I’m going to report it to the insurance company, and they’re going to take over investigating that claim, so it relieves me of the burden of having to take responsibility for handling that,” McCarthy said. “Without insurance, you don’t have the insurance company as a partner to help you through the legal process and to take the financial responsibility of paying the claim if it’s a legitimate claim.”
A third risk massage therapists may face if they choose not to purchase liability insurance is potential for a perceived lack of professionalism in the eyes of prospective clients and employers. This is much subtler than the financial risk and aggravation factor associated with forgoing insurance, but it remains an important point.
“I think having liability insurance shows a greater sense of credibility, in that the licensed massage therapist has taken the appropriate business steps to protect their practice,” McCarthy said, “and to ensure the consumer will be taken care of in the unlikely event of a mishap.”
Understanding what’s covered
When you purchase liability insurance, it’s necessary to know what’s covered under the policy and what kind of protection you’re purchasing. This can help massage therapists better understand the value of investing in liability insurance.
“Generally, it’s going to cover the legal expenses associated with the investigation of the claim and the claims management process,” McCarthy said. “If there’s a judgment, the policy will pay up to the cost of the judgment.”
For example, many massage liability programs will cover up to $2 million per legal claim, and then there will be a larger dollar amount assigned to cover multiple claims made within a one-year period, referred to as annual aggregate coverage.
Besides knowing how much financial coverage a policy offers, it’s also important to find out exactly what is covered. For example, if you do massage and teach yoga, or if you use hot stones in your practice, you will want to find insurance that covers all these services within one policy.
According to McCarthy, more than 350 modalities are covered under MASSAGE Magazine Insurance Plus, and the purchase of a single policy will cover any of these modalities a massage therapist may practice.
Getting greater coverage
Several massage liability insurance programs not only offer protection against client legal claims, but also offer added coverage for other issues massage therapists may face, such as lost or stolen property, rental damage and identity theft.
“One type of claim we see a lot of is property coverage,” McCarthy said. “If some property used in massage practice—a massage table or chair, or a laptop or cell phone used in the context of the business—if that gets stolen, there’s coverage for that.”
Coverage for damage to rental premises is another form of protection that may be included with liability insurance. For example, if a massage therapist is burning a candle in a rented session room, and that candle gets knocked over and starts a fire, damage to the rental premises would be covered.
The identity theft protection offered by certain insurance programs is not related to the practice of massage, but is provided to reimburse massage therapists for expenses associated with cleaning up their credit if an identity theft occurs.
Insuring students and teachers
Massage schools tend to carry their own liability insurance policies, but this does not mean students and instructors at these schools are safe from potential lawsuits. The rule to remember is anyone who practices massage may be liable when sued, so massage students and teachers need protection, too.
“The school will have a policy, but the students and instructors are not necessarily covered by that program,” McCarthy said, “so they could be left out in the cold in the case of a lawsuit.”
Most massage students practice within school clinics and out in their community, whereas massage instructors may perform demonstrations, participate in community massage events and also practice on their own outside the school setting. Therefore, the need for liability insurance is present.
Better safe than sorry
Despite the fact that legal issues among massage therapists may seem rare, it is clear that numerous situations could occur in which a massage therapist would benefit from coverage provided by liability insurance.
Comparing the fairly low annual fees associated with most massage liability programs to the massive amount of coverage these policies provide, it appears the old saying, better safe than sorry, certainly applies.
About the Author
Brandi Vesco is an avid bodywork client and full-time journalist based in Reno, Nevada. She is a regular contributor to MASSAGE Magazine.