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.
A Mississippi state appeals court ruled that a trial court erred in dismissing a lawsuit brought by the mother of a 17-year-old boy who was killed while participating on a mission trip to Costa Rica that had been organized by his church. In June of 2009, a church organized a mission trip to Costa Rica for the purpose of constructing a sanctuary. There were 20 members on the trip, including 13 adults and 7 minors. The trip was organized and led by the church's youth pastor. One of the participants on the trip was a 17-year-old male (the "victim") who was to begin his senior year in high school in the fall.
Before leaving for the mission trip, the victim's grandmother signed two documents before a notary public as a condition of the victim participating. These documents included a "Youth Medical/Parent Consent" form and a "Parental Consent" form. The victim also signed a document titled "International Missionary Profile and Release of Claim" that contained warnings about the dangers associated with participating on the mission trip.
The group arrived in Costa Rica on June 20, 2009. Geographically, Costa Rica sits between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. The church group was on the Pacific Ocean side. The victim and other members of the group began climbing on volcanic-rock formations separated from the shore by shallow water. The victim and another minor climbed on and over the rock formation to the Pacific Ocean side, and then they climbed down near the Pacific Ocean's edge, where they saw some crabs. While watching the crabs, waves from the Pacific Ocean knocked the boys off of the rocks and into the ocean's currents of dangerous riptides. When a third wave hit them, the boys went under water, and when the second boy surfaced, he no longer could see the victim. The other boy later testified that prior to the trip, no one warned them of unsafe tide, surf, waves, or other conditions existing on the Pacific Ocean coast of Costa Rica. Fifteen minutes before the boys were knocked into the ocean by the first wave, a 350-pound adult chaperone was knocked off his feet and thrown into the surf by another wave a short distance from the boys' location.
The youth pastor testified that she had led youth mission trips before and had traveled with youth groups internationally before, and that she had consulted with team leaders from another church who had traveled to Costa Rica on youth mission trips. But, she acknowledged that she had failed to check US State Department online travel advisory warnings, or any other travel advisories, regarding any unsafe beach, tide, or surf conditions in Costa Rica. She also admitted to not instructing or warning the victim or any of the other youth about beach safety or about the dangerous surf or riptides of Costa Rica's Pacific coast.
The mission-trip members immediately sought help after seeing people on the beach reacting and in the water. Local residents contacted emergency services and an ambulance and local authorities arrived soon thereafter. Everyone at the beach began looking for the victim. Other members of the group stayed on the beach for over three hours after the incident until darkness ended their search. The victim's body was found the next day and identified by the youth pastor.
The victim's mother sued the church, claiming that in planning and supervising the trip, a duty existed to warn of the hidden dangers and perils not in plain view that the church and its youth pastor knew, or should have known, existed. Additionally, once the tide rose and the large waves began knocking some of the adults down, the youth pastor should have evacuated group members from the water, or at a minimum, more closely supervised them and warned them of the dangerous conditions. The trial court concluded that the mother had failed to produce sufficient evidence of the church's negligence, and it dismissed the case. The mother appealed.
A state appeals court ruled that the trial court erred in dismissing the mother's claims since there was sufficient evidence of negligence to let a jury resolve the question of the church's negligence. The court observed: "The record reflects existing material questions of fact as to whether the church, through its mission trip leader … negligently breached its duty to [the victim] to plan and supervise this international mission trip and to warn him of the dangerous beach and surf conditions on Costa Rica's Pacific coast … . In planning and supervising this trip, a duty existed to warn of the hidden dangers and perils not in plain view that the church and its mission trip leader knew, or should have known, existed. Additionally, once the tide rose and the large waves knocked adults down, the mission trip leader bore a duty to supervise and warn the victim of the dangerous conditions."
The church argued on appeal that the waivers signed prior to the trip by the victim and his grandmother precluded any recovery. But the court noted that the two persons who signed the waivers of liability—the victim and his grandmother—were not parties to this lawsuit. The mother was the party who sued the church, but she had not signed any waiver or release and therefore was not bound by the forms the victim and his grandmother signed. In addition, the victim was a minor (17 years old) at the time he signed an agreement waiving any legal claims against the church, and as such, he lacked the legal capacity to sign a contractual document.
What This Means for Churches:
This case is relevant to church leaders for the following three reasons:
The court ruled that the mother had produced sufficient evidence of the church's negligence to survive the church's motion for summary judgment. As examples, the court noted that the church could be found negligent by a jury based on:
- A failure by the youth pastor to "plan and supervise this international mission trip."
- While the youth pastor consulted with team leaders from another church who had traveled to Costa Rica on youth mission trips, she failed to check with the US State Department online travel advisory warnings, or any other travel advisories, as to any unsafe beach, tide, or surf conditions in Costa Rica.
- A failure to warn the victim of the dangerous beach and surf conditions on Costa Rica's Pacific coast.
- In planning and supervising this trip, a duty existed to warn of the hidden dangers and perils not in plain view that the church and its youth pastor knew, or should have known, existed.
- Once "the tide rose and the large waves knocked adults down, the mission trip leader bore a duty to supervise and warn the victim of the dangerous conditions."
These alleged failures can assist other churches in planning mission trips. The bottom line is that churches have a duty (1) to warn participants (minors and adults) of dangerous conditions, and of hidden perils not in plain view of which church leaders either know about, or in the exercise of reasonable care should have; (2) to consult with other youth group leaders who have led mission trips to the same destination for advice; and (3) to check US State Department online travel advisory warnings, or any other travel advisories, regarding any unsafe conditions in the target destination of the mission trip, and, based on this evidence, warn adult and minor participants of such conditions (and the parents of minor participants), or choose a different, and safer, destination.
2. Preinjury waivers of liability
The court ruled that the preinjury waivers were "unenforceable with respect to the negligence claims for wrongful death raised in this case against the church for its negligence in planning, supervising, and failing to warn of the dangerous beach and ocean conditions on this mission trip to Costa Rica," for the following reasons:
- The two persons who signed the waivers of liability—the victim and his grandmother—were not parties to this lawsuit. The mother was the party who sued the church, but she had not signed any waiver or release and therefore was not bound by the forms the victim and his grandmother signed. In addition, the victim was a minor (17 years old) at the time he signed an agreement waiving any legal claims against the church, and as such he lacked the legal capacity to sign a contractual document.
- The language in the waivers applied to church mission-related activities and related risks. The waivers contained no language regarding the liability or risks of recreational activities such as hiking, swimming, or rock climbing on Costa Rica's beaches on the Pacific Ocean or the risks of the dangerous riptides and dangerous ocean surf.
- Public policy prohibits the use of preinjury waivers of liability for personal injury due to future acts of a defendant's own negligence.
- For a waiver to be valid and enforceable, it must not be ambiguous. It must be specific in wording about liability.
- Waivers are strictly construed against the defendant.
- When a waiver contains ambiguous language, it cannot be construed as a waiver of liability for injuries that result from the negligence of a defendant.
For additional insights on forms related to church activities, see sidebar "Parental Permission and Medical Consent Forms."
3. Insurance for short-term mission trips in other countries
Many church leaders are unaware of an "exterritorial exclusion" in most churches' liability insurance policies. Such an exclusion means that the insurance policy provides no coverage for deaths and injuries occurring outside the United States. Church leaders should discuss this issue with their insurance agent to see if such an exclusion exists in the church's policy, and if so, what coverage options exist. First United Methodist Church, 2016 WL 1203753 (Miss. App. 2016).