By Doyice Cotten
Several court rulings as well as a new statute have affected the parental waiver landscape recently. Three states were discussed in an article posted last week. Here, we will address recent cases affecting parental waiver law in Alabama, Texas, and Pennsylvania. Parental waiver law for all states is covered in depth in Waivers & Releases of Liability, 7th ed.
J.T., a minor, was injured while riding his motorcycle on a motocross course at Monster Mountain MX Park. He rode over a blind jump, became airborne, and crashed into a tractor on the track. Monster Mountain said the claim was barred by the pre-injury waiver signed by J.T.
The release was typical of those used in the racing industry and included an assumption of risk, a release of liability for negligence, and an indemnification clause. Since J.T. was a minor, the agreement was signed by Thompson (an adult acting on behalf of J.T.’s parents).
The court discussed that 1) Alabama law holds that a minor can disaffirm a contract he or she signs and 2) state law has restricted the right of parents to release post-injury claims. It went on to conclude that the release signed by Thomson is not binding and hold that under Alabama law, a parent may not bind a child to a pre-injury liability waiver in favor of a for-profit activity sponsor by signing the waiver on the child’s behalf.
Two important points are worth noting. First, notice that the ruling applies only to for-profit activity sponsors. Second, in a footnote is an interesting statement: “The court does not hold that an indemnity agreement, such as that contained in another clause of the release, signed by parents in order for their child to be allowed to participate in a dangerous activity, would not be enforceable against the parties. That issue is not presented.” This would seem to leave open the possibility that 1) parental waivers might be enforceable when used by school and community sponsors, and 2) it may be that parental indemnification agreements are enforceable.
A federal court in Texas (Paz v. Life Time Fitness, Inc., 210 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133058) sought to determine if a release signed by a parent on behalf of a minor child was sufficient to protect a summer day camp from liability for its negligence. The court examined waiver law in Texas (Munuz v. II Jaz Inc., Tex., 1993 which ruled that parents do not have the authority to waive a child’s cause of action against an amusement park) and in other jurisdictions. The court held that a pre-injury release executed by the mother
“is not enforceable to release the defendants from all liability for the minor’s injuries. The record does not suggest that the defendants were operating a nonprofit community or school program. Under the majority approach, the release of a commercial enterprise from for the child’s injuries is not enforceable.”
Note that, as in the Alabama case, the ruling restricts the prohibition against parental waivers to those used by commercial enterprises, but does not include those used by non-profit school and community programs.
In Mavreshko v. Resorts USA, Inc. (Pa., 2008), three waivers were signed prior to skiing – one by the father, one by the mother, and one by both the son and the mother. The son was injured, negligence was found, and the court did not enforce the waiver signed by the minor. The court did, however, enforce that waiver against the mother, who also signed it. The mother appealed, claiming, among other things, that she did not know she was releasing her own rights. The waiver, however, concluded with the statement
“I, the undersigned, acknowledge that I have read this agreement and release of liability and I understand its contents. I understand that my signature below expressly waives any rights I may have to sue Operator for injuries and damages.”
So while parental waivers remain unenforceable against the claims of minors in Pennsylvania, this case makes it clear that the parental waiver is enforceable against the claims of the signing parent.