Release Forms and High-Risk Activities

In some states, release forms signed by competent adults may be recognized in court.

Church Law and Tax 1994-03-01 Recent Developments

Releases from Liability

Key point: “Release forms” signed by competent adults will be recognized by the courts in some states so long as the content of such a form is not misrepresented in any way to the person who signs it.

A Michigan appeals court ruled that a release form signed by a competent adult prior to participating in a dangerous activity prevented him from suing as a result of injuries he sustained. As part of an annual historic festival a city sponsored a “rope climb” contest. A rope was stretched across a river and participants would hang onto the rope with their hands and attempt to cross the river. The winner was the participant who crossed the river in the shortest period of time. Various cash prizes were awarded to the winner and runners-up, and there was a one dollar entry fee paid by all participants. One participant lost his grasp of the rope and fell head first into the river, sustaining permanent and disabling injuries. He sued the city and the individuals who organized the festival. The city and festival organizers claimed that the victim could not sue because he signed a liability release form. Before participating in the rope climb, each participant was required to sign a form entitled “WAIVER OF LIABILITY” that stated:

In consideration of the possibility injuries which could occur in this event, i hereby release all participating groups and persons officially connected with this event from any and all liability for any injury or damages whatsoever arising from any participation in this event.

Below this statement were several lines for the participants to sign (each participant signed the same form). A trial court ruled that the victim’s signing of this release prevented him from suing anyone on account of his injuries. The victim appealed, and an appeals court agreed with the trial court that the release prevented the victim from suing. The court rejected the victim’s claim that the release was invalid since it did not specifically name every person or organization that was being released from liability. It observed simply that “[i]t was not necessary for the release to individually name each person or entity to be released from liability. The scope of the applicability of the waiver is clear: it waived liability with respect to any person or group responsible for the rope climb event.” The court also rejected the victim’s claim that the release was unenforceable because there had been a mutual mistake. Specifically, the victim alleged that he had failed to read the release before signing it and therefore he could not be bound by it. The court observed:

[O]ne who signs a contract cannot seek to invalidate it on the basis that he or she did not read it or thought that its terms were different, absent a showing of fraud or mutual mistake …. [F]ailing to read a contract document provides a ground for [unenforceability] only where the failure was not induced by carelessness alone, but instead was induced by some stratagem, trick, or artifice by the parties seeking to enforce the contract. This principle is directly applicable to the facts of this case, where [the victim] admits to signing the release contract, but claims that he was not aware of the terms of the document.

The court suggested that had a worker handed the release form to the victim stating that it was merely a sign-up form and of no consequence, then the release might have been unenforceable. The court emphasized that the release statement was in capital letters, and had the words “WAIVER OF LIABILITY” at the top, and thus was written with sufficient clarity “to put a layman on notice that any right to bring a claim of liability for injury or damages arising out of participation in the event was being waived.” The court also rejected the victim’s argument that a separate release must be signed by each participant—”we are aware of not requirement that individual waivers of liability must be executed by each participant in an event rather than all participants signing the same waiver.”

In summary, this case suggests that release forms signed by a competent adult will be given effect unless the nature of the release was misrepresented. As we have pointed out before, it is our position that in some cases it is appropriate for competent adults to sign assumption of risk forms releasing a church from liability for specified risks. An example would be short-term overseas missions assignments by laypersons. If such an assignment involves travel to dangerous parts of the world, then the adult volunteers may be asked to assume the risks of such service as a condition of being accepted for a project. This is much different, however, from churches seeking to exempt themselves from liability for injuries to children occurring because of the negligence of church workers. Churches purchase liability insurance to cover such risks, and so the only real beneficiary of such release forms is the church’s insurance company. Some view a church’s attempt to exempt itself from liability under such circumstances as unethical. Also note that it is much less likely that the civil courts will enforce releases that purport to exempt a church from liability for injuries to minors. It is also our position that churches should not allow a minor child to participate in any church activity (such as camping, boating, swimming, hiking, or some sporting events) unless the child’s parents or legal guardians sign a form that: (1) consents to their child participating in the specified activity; (2) certifies that the child is able to participate in the event (e.g., if the activity involves boating or swimming, the parents or guardians should certify that the child is able to swim); (3) lists any allergies or medical conditions that may be relevant to a physician in the event of an emergency; (4) lists any activities that the parents or guardians do not want the child to engage in; and (5) authorizes a designated individual to make emergency medical decisions for their child in the event that they cannot be reached. Dombrowski v. City of Omer, 502 N.W.2d 707 (Mich. App. 1993).

See Also: Negligence as a Basis for Liability – Defenses

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