Many churches nationwide use some version of waivers and release forms with their events and activities, especially ones involving children and youth. Leaders wish to notify participants—or the parents or guardians of participants—about the potential risks involved.
They want a signature signaling the participant or parent acknowledges those risks and will not attempt to hold the church legally liable should one of those risks somehow result in an injury either to themselves or their children.
While waivers and release forms are an important part of a church’s risk management strategy, they aren’t perfect. They can help limit a church’s legal liability but often, they cannot fully eliminate it.
Unfortunately, many church leaders get lulled into a false sense of security about these documents, and these misunderstandings can lead to costly situations. Richard Hammar offers 19 key points to consider when creating and using waivers and releases at your church.
- Release forms will be strictly and narrowly construed against the church.
- The courts are more likely to enforce a customized release or assumption of risk form than a generic form found on the internet. Ideally, the form should be drafted, or at least reviewed, by legal counsel. The importance of legal counsel in drafting release forms is illustrated by a recent federal court ruling in Tennessee that was described previously in this article. The case involved a legal form used by a church that was found on the internet. Church leaders failed to notice that the form required all employment disputes to be arbitrated in California! Clearly, the church was using a template that was intended for use in California, and neglected to make it Tennessee-specific. An attorney would have flagged this provision, and spared the Tennessee church of the needless expense of arbitrating in California.
- Release forms will not be enforced if they are ambiguous.
- Release forms will not be enforced if the person signing the form does not do so voluntarily.
- Release forms will not be enforced if the person signing the form is not informed (by the language of the form) as to the specific risk that is being released. Activities giving risk to injuries must be specifically described along with a listing of the possible injuries.
- Releases and assumption of risk forms should contain language releasing the releasee from liability based on the negligence of itself or its agents "to the fullest extent permitted by law."