Releases from Liability

A West Virginia court refused to enforce a “release agreement” signed by the youth pastor of a church on behalf of a 14-year-old girl who drowned.

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 West Virginia court refused to enforce a "release agreement" signed by the youth pastor of a church on behalf of a 14-year-old girl who drowned while participating on a church-sponsored whitewater rafting trip. A church sponsored a youth trip for the purpose of performing missions work. The trip culminated in a whitewater rafting excursion. The church's youth pastor handled most of the arrangements for the whitewater event on behalf of the church. Prior to the start of the trip, the church required all minor participants to obtain "permission slips" from their parents or guardians. At the end of the missions trip, the youth group proceeded to a whitewater tour company that was conducting the event. Before allowing the trip to begin, the tour company required the youth pastor to sign two forms. The first form was a release of liability which recounted the many risks involved with whitewater rafting and ended by releasing the tour company from liability. The youth pastor signed this form. The second form, which was labeled "indemnification and release" and which was to be signed by each minor participant's parent or guardian, released the tour company from liability for the death or injury to their child, and agreed to indemnify the tour company for any claims made against it by any party. The youth pastor signed these forms for each minor participant in his own name.

During the trip, a raft flipped over, pinning a 14-year-old girl against a rock beneath the water. She drowned before she could be rescued. The victim's mother later sued the tour company, and the tour company in turn sued the church, claiming that the documents signed by the youth pastor obligated the church to pay any damages for which it was found liable. The tour company asserted that the youth pastor had been vested with sufficient authority by the parents of the minor participants to bind them to the agreements through his signature. The court addressed the legal status of each document separately.

release of liability

The court noted that an "anticipatory release of liability" like the one in this case that "purports to exempt the defendant from liability to the plaintiff for the failure of the defendant to conform to the standard of care expected of members of his occupation is unenforceable." As a result, the "release forms" signed by the youth pastor were unenforceable.

indemnification agreement

The court noted that while "anticipatory release agreements" were not legally enforceable, the same prohibition was not true of indemnification agreements. However, the document signed by the youth pastor would only operate as an enforceable agreement by the church to indemnify the tour company if "the language of that contract manifests that this was what the parties intended." The court noted that the form could arguably be construed as an attempt to shift the financial consequences of a loss from one party to another (i.e., an indemnification), but it concluded that the document was unenforceable because it was ambiguous. The "indemnification" language in the document stated that "the undersigned parent and/or guardian of the minor, for themselves and on behalf of the minor, join in the foregoing waiver and release and stipulates and agrees to save and hold harmless, indemnify, and forever defend [the tour company] from and against any claims and negligence made or brought by the minor or by anyone on behalf of the minor." However, the youth pastor who signed the form was not the parent or guardian of any of the minors. The court defined a "guardian" as "a person lawfully invested with the power, and charged with the duty, of taking care of the person and managing the property and rights of another person, who … is considered incapable of administering his own affairs." There was nothing to indicate, the court concluded, that the youth pastor "had so sweeping a mandate. At most, he was given permission by [the minors' parents] to transport [their children] to another state for the purposes of participating in a mission trip that would culminate in a rafting trip. He had no authority to manage the minors' "property and rights."

Similarly, the court concluded that there was no evidence that the youth pastor was acting as an agent of his church when he signed the indemnification agreement. It noted that the name of the church did not appear anywhere on the indemnity agreements.

Application. While the release forms in this case had been prepared by a commercial whitewater rafting company, the conclusions the court reached are relevant to churches that use such forms. Churches should not assume that release forms will be enforceable, especially when they seek to relieve a church of liability for accidents involving minors. Johnson v. New River Scenic Whitewater Tours, Inc., (S.D.W.V. 2004).

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