Minors and Assumption of Risk

Churches should not rely on release forms signed by minors.

Church Law and Tax 1997-07-01

Personal injuries-on church property or during church activities

Key point. Minors do not have the capacity to sign contracts, and therefore cannot sign binding “releases” or “assumptions of risk” that exempt churches or other organizations from legal liability.

A Florida court ruled that a 13—year—old girl could sue a ranch for injuries she sustained when she fell off a horse despite the fact that she signed a legal document releasing the ranch from all liability for any accident or injury. A sign at the ranch stated: “Caution: Horseback riding can be dangerous. Ride at your own risk.” In addition, the girl was asked to sign a release form that stated:

In consideration of permission granted to me to ride [horses at the ranch] I hereby, for myself, my heirs, administrators, and assigns, release, remise, and discharge the [ranch] and its agents and employees, of and from all claims, demands, actions and injuries, sustained to my person or property as a result of any act, omission, or negligence [of the ranch] while riding [horses] on the premises of [the ranch].

I am aware of the risks and dangers involved in horseback riding and that unanticipated and unexpected dangers may arise, and I assume all risks of injury to my person and property that may be sustained as a result.

I represent and certify that I am at least 18 years of age, or if I am under the age of 18 years old, I represent and certify that I have the permission of my parents or guardian to rent and ride [horses at the ranch] and that they have full knowledge thereof ….

I have read and understand the above.

On the day of the accident, the girls horse began to move on its own initiative at a faster gait, and the girls attempts to stop or control the horse failed. She was injured when she struck the branch of a tree as the horse ran close to it. The girl and her mother sued the ranch, claiming that it knew that inexperienced riders often are not aware that a horse can suddenly go from a walk to a gallop, and that they may be unable to control the horse. Further, the girl and her mother claimed that the ranch did not provide adequate supervision of the girl, and failed to adequately protect her against injury. The ranch relied on the legal document signed by the girl, and the sign that was posted on its premises.

A state appeals court ruled that the girl was not prevented from suing the ranch on the basis of either the document she signed or the sign that was posted on the ranchs premises. The court acknowledged that release forms that “clearly state that party is released from liability for its own negligence in clear and unequivocal words are effective.” However, this rule not apply to documents signed by minors who lack the legal capacity to enter into contractual obligations. The court concluded that “a minor child injured because of [anothers] negligence is not bound by her contractual waiver of her right to file a lawsuit.”

Application. The lesson of this case is plain-churches should not place any reliance on releases or assumption of risk forms signed by minors. These forms are not the way to address and reduce legal risk. They are not a substitute for adequate supervision of activities involving minors. Dilallo v. Riding Safely, Inc., 687 So.2d 353 (Fla. App. 1997). [ Negligence as a Basis for Liability]

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