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 use release forms as a means of managing legal risks. Some churches require parents to sign a release form in order for their children to participate in church-sponsored trips and activities, while others require adults to sign a release form in order to participate on a short-term missions project or church construction or maintenance project. Are such forms legally enforceable? And, are they appropriate? Four recent cases address the legal enforceability of release forms. Each of these cases is summarized below, followed by an assessment of the relevance of such cases to church practices.
An Ohio court ruled that a release form signed by an adult was legally enforceable and barred her from suing a commercial facility where she was injured. A child received an invitation to attend a birthday party at the Just for Fun Party Center (the “Center”). A half-page “Waiver/Release” form accompanied the invitation. The release stated, in part:
In consideration for being allowed to enter into the play arena and/or participate in any activities, events, parties or programs at the Just For Fun Play Center the undersigned, on his or her own behalf and on the behalf of the minor identified below and those persons and entities set forth in numbered paragraph 4, acknowledges and agrees that …
(2) there is a risk of injury from this equipment, and from participation in the activities engaged in, and while particular rules, equipment and personal discipline may reduce the risk, the risk still exists and is accepted and assumed by me; and
(3) I knowingly and freely assume all such risks, both known and unknown, and however arising, even if arising from the negligence of other participants and employees. I will assume full responsibility for the participants listed below. I agree to assume liability for all medical costs, attorneys’ fees and any and all other expenses and damages resulting from injury to myself, the participants listed below and those persons and entities set forth in numbered paragraph 4 below, and
(4) I, for myself and on behalf of my spouse (if any), children … hereby release and hold harmless Just For Fun Party Center and its employees and all other participants with respect to any and all expenses, medical bills, causes of action, claims, injury, disability, loss and damage to person or property to the fullest extent permitted by law.
At the bottom of the release form was a line for “Participant Name.” The child’s mother (the “plaintiff”) printed the name of her daughter on that line. The form also had a separate line for the “Adult Guardian Signature,” and this was the line the plaintiff signed.
On the day of the party, the plaintiff and her husband brought their daughter to the Center. While there, the parents were shown an area that contained inflatable obstacle courses intended for older children and adults. An employee of Just for Fun offered to allow some of the adults to try one of the courses. After another couple had gone through the course, the plaintiff and her husband entered. While navigating the obstacle course the plaintiff fell, sustaining an injury to her shoulder. She later sued the Center, claiming that it was negligent in supervising its facilities. A trial court ruled that the release form barred the plaintiff’s claims. A state appeals court began its opinion by stating the following general rule regarding the legal status of release forms:
A participant in a recreational activity is free to contractually relieve the operator of liability for injuries that might be negligently caused. The participant must make a conscious choice to accept the consequences of the other party’s negligence. That conscious choice is manifested through an agreement that states a clear and unambiguous intent to release the party from liability.
The plaintiff argued on appeal that the release form that she signed was not enforceable because it was unclear that the release applied to her as well as to her daughter. In particular, she insisted that the reference to a “participant” would have led a reasonable person to believe that the release applied only to her daughter, since she did not know at the time of signing the release that she would also participate in the activities.
The court concluded that the release form was
neither unclear nor ambiguous as to whom it referred. The first paragraph referred to ‘the undersigned’ as acting ‘on his or her own behalf and on behalf of the minor identified below and those persons and entities set forth in numbered paragraph 4.’ Thus, the release applied to three groups of people: (1) the person who signed the form (the plaintiff), (2) the minor identified below (the plaintiff’s daughter), and (3) those listed in the fourth paragraph (“my spouse”) ….
While paragraph three did state that “I also assume full responsibility for the participants listed below,” it went on to state that [the plaintiff] was assuming the risk of injury “to myself, the participants listed below and those set forth in numbered paragraph 4.” She was assuming this risk, even if the injury arose “from the negligence of other participants and employees.”
Additionally, [the plaintiff’s] argument that she was not signing as a participant is without merit. The signatory signed the release “in consideration for being allowed to enter the play arena and/or participate.” The plaintiff’s argument assumes its own conclusion—that the release referred only to injuries sustained by the child participants. Since the form clearly and repeatedly indicated that Just for Fun would not be liable for injuries to the participants, the signatory, or those related to the signatory, the fact that the plaintiff did not intend to “participate” had no relevance. Baker v. Just for Fun Party Center, 923 N.E.2d 224 (Ohio App. 2009).
This Recent Development first appeared in Church Law & Tax Report, July/August 2010.