Editors’ Note: This article has a companion side bar article, “A 16-Point Evaluation for Assumption of Risk Forms,” also available online to Church Law & Tax Report and ChurchLawAndTax.com subscribers.
Key point 10-16.6. A release form is a document signed by a competent adult that purports to relieve a church from liability for its own negligence. Such forms may be legally enforceable if they are clearly written and identify the conduct that is being released. However, the courts look with disfavor on release forms, and this has led to several limitations, including the following: (1) release forms will be strictly and narrowly construed against the church; (2) release forms cannot relieve a church of liability for injuries to minors, since minors have no legal capacity to sign such forms and their parents' signature does not prevent minors from bringing their own personal injury claim after they reach age 18; (3) some courts refuse to enforce any release form that attempts to avoid liability for personal injuries on the ground that such forms violate public policy; and (4) release forms will not be enforced unless they clearly communicate that they are releasing the church from liability for its negligence.
Many churches, schools, youth-serving charities, and recreational venues attempt to reduce the risk of liability for injuries occurring during sponsored events by having participants sign a form that purports to exempt the host organization from liability for injuries caused by its own negligence. Such forms typically are called release forms, waivers of liability, or assumptions of risk. All too often churches and other organizations use forms found online, with no legal input or review. This can result in forms that are useless or of limited value.