By Doyice Cotten
Ms. Sylvia Rieff and her two children visited Jesse James Riding Stables, Inc. (JJStables) and took a guided horseback riding tour. Approximately 20 minutes into the tour, as the trail entered the surrounding woods, Ms. Rieff’s saddle became loose, and she slid off the side of the horse, falling to the ground. Ms. Rieff sued JJStables alleging they were negligent in adjusting the saddle (Rieff v. Jesse James Riding Stables, Inc., Ky, 2022). Ms. Rieff filed a complaint claiming JJ Stables negligently (1) failed to properly secure the saddle, (2) failed to recognize the faulty saddling of the horse, (3) provided unsafe equipment, and (4) failed to properly warn Ms. Rieff of the risk of a loosening saddle.
Prior to the ride, Rieff signed a liability waiving liability for negligence of the stables. The waiver stated:
I/WE understand and agree that except in event of THIS STABLES’S gross negligence, I/WE accept full responsibility for bodily injury, property damage, death, medical and other financial loss expenses to include, but not limited to, time lost from school or work or disability, which are sustained by any member of my group so listed above, on or in relationship to the premises and operations of THIS STABLE and/or while riding or handling horses or other animals owned by same; and that I/WE hereby, for myself, my heirs, administrators and assigns, do hereby release and discharge the owners, operators, sponsors of the premises and their respective servants, agents, officers and all other participants of and from all claims, demands, actions and causes of action for same injuries, damages, and death ….
Finally, in Section IV, “Closing Statement and Signatures,” the Release stated that
“THE UNDERSIGNED HAVE READ AND UNDERSTAND THE FOREGOING AGREEMENT AND RELEASE WAIVER”
The trial court granted JJStables a summary judgment based on the liability waiver. The court ruled that the waiver met the criteria demanded by Kentucky law and that Rieff was bound by the waiver. Rieff appealed the verdict claiming that the waiver failed to meet any of the Hargis factors. She further argued that the waiver was ambiguous and not enforceable against her.
Kentucky Waiver Law
The court quoted Hargis which stated that although waivers are “disfavored and … strictly construed against the parties relying upon them[,]” an exculpatory, pre-injury release “for negligence, whether ordinary or gross, is not invalid per se.” The court added that the text of the release must be “so clear and understandable that an ordinarily prudent and knowledgeable party to it will know what he or she is contracting away; it must be unmistakable.”
The court listed four factors provided by the Kentucky Supreme Court relative to the enforcement of a waiver. At least one of these factors must be present for the waiver to be enforceable.
(1) it explicitly expresses an intention to exonerate by using the word “negligence;” or
(2) it clearly and specifically indicates an intent to release a party from liability for a personal injury caused by that party’s own conduct; or
(3) protection against negligence is the only reasonable construction of the contract language; or
(4) the hazard experienced was clearly within the contemplation of the provision.
Ms. Rieff’s Arguments
Ms. Rieff claims that the waiver does not explicitly exonerate by using the word “negligence.” She argues that the Release’s use of
“except in event of THIS STABLES’S gross negligence” does not establish the express intention to exonerate using the word “negligence.”
She asserts that the language “implies” negligence, but does not explicitly say “negligence” as specified by the first factor. She says that it did not meet the standard of “utmost clarity.” Rieff contends that although the language of the Release may have implied that ordinary – as opposed to gross – negligence was exonerated, it did not meet the standard of “utmost clarity”
JJStables argued that the phrase “except in event of THIS STABLES’S gross negligence” indicated that Ms. Rieff agreed to release JJ Stables from all culpable conduct short of gross negligence, i.e., release them from ordinary negligence.”
In Hargis, the Kentucky Supreme Court explained that utmost clarity meant “[t]he wording of the release must be so clear and understandable that an ordinarily prudent and knowledgeable party to it will know what he or she is contracting away[.]” JJ Stables argues that the use of “gross negligence” – as opposed to simply “negligence” – delivered the required specificity, and that the ordinary person understands liability would be waived for all conduct short of gross negligence. This court agreed with JJStables.
Ruling Regarding Enforceability
The court determined that the waiver clearly met requirement 1, 3, and 4. Since only one requirement must be met to be enforceable, the court ruled the waiver was enforceable.
Rieff’s Claim That the Waiver Applied to Her
Ms. Rieff’s final claim was that the wording of the waiver was ambiguous as to whether it applied to her or just to her children. She points to the following sentence:
“By this agreement, made and entered into this day, by and between Sylvia Rieff [who had written her own name on the blank line] who will sign below for and on behalf of all under-age family members, and those for whom I am guardian, hereinafter referred to as ‘I/WE,’ and [JJ Stables] hereinafter referred to as ‘THIS STABLE[.]’ ”
She claims that the sentence has 2 possible interpretations: 1) she signed the waiver only on behalf of her children or 2) she signed it on behalf of herself and her two children. Ms. Rieff claims the first interpretation is the one supported because the waiver noted that she was signing on behalf of her children but was silent as to whether she was a party in the contract in her individual capacity.
Ruling of the Court
The court disagreed with the argument of Rieff. It pointed to numerous reminders that the agreement is between Ms. Rieff and JJ Stables and that she is bound by it.
- First, the very portion Ms. Rieff takes issue with clearly states that the agreement is between her (who would sign on behalf of her underage children) and JJ Stables.
- Rieff testified that she wrote her name in the blank space provided in that section.
- She further testified that right below that recitation, she again wrote her name with her children’s names in the portion defining “I/WE, the following listed individuals [.]”
The court deemed the waiver enforceable and that it applied to Ms. Rieff. They affirmed the order of the circuit court.
Risk Management Take-Away
The take-away – do what JJStables did – use a waiver that meets your state criteria for an enforceable waiver. Don’t copy one from the Internet or a book.
Photo Credit: Thanks to Woodleywonderworks via Flickr.