Releases are legal documents and need to be written by an attorney that understands the law and the risks of your program/business/activity and your guests/members/clientele.

Wycoff v. Grace Community Church of the Assemblies of God, 2010 Colo. App. LEXIS 1832

The case is a little confusing to read because there was another case that was appealed by the same parties whom this case refers to. Additionally, the act of the trial court in reducing the damages is confusing. However, this case is a very clear example of how a badly written release is going to cost the church and its insurance company millions.

A church group had taken kids to a camp for a “Winterama 2005.” The church had rented the camp for the weekend. The plaintiff was 17 and not a member of the church. Her parents had paid a reduced fee for her to attend the activity. As part of that registration her mother signed a “Registration and information” form. One of the activities was pulling them behind an ATV on an inner tube on a frozen lake.

There was a large boulder embedded in the lake. On the second loop, the plaintiff’s inner tube hit the boulder breaking her back.

The plaintiff’s mother had signed the “Registration and Information” form. On the form was the following sentence.

I will not hold Grace Community Church or its participants responsible for any liability, which may result from participation.

The case went to trial, and the jury returned a $4M verdict in favor of the plaintiff. The defendant and plaintiff appealed after the judge reduced the damages to the limits of the insurance policy of the church, $2M plus interest.

The appellate court first looked at Colorado case law on releases and the legislative history of § 13-22-107(3), C.R.S. 2010. That statute, C.R.S. § 13-22-107(3), was enacted to allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue. The statute, and the decision in Jones v. Dressel, 623 P.2d 370, 376 (Colo. 1981), has a requirement that the parental decision must be “informed” and with the intent to release the [defendant] from liability. Jones v. Dressel was the first Supreme Court review of releases in the state of Colorado as they applied to recreational activities.

The court looked at the language in the “Registration and Information” form to see if it informed the parents of the activities and risks their child would be undertaking. The court looked at the language and found:

There is no information in Grace’s one-page registration form describing the event activities, nothing describing the associated risks. Stating that the children would participate in “Winterama 2005 and all activities associated with it” does not indicate what the activities would involve and certainly does not suggest they would include ATV-towed inner-tube excursions around a frozen lake.

The court also looked at prior decisions concerning releases and found that “in every Colorado Supreme Court case upholding an exculpatory clause. The clause contained some reference to waiving personal injury claims based on the activity being engaged in.”

The court concluded that:

Grace’s [the defendant’s] form made no reference to the relevant activity or to waiving personal injury claims. The operative sentence (the third one in a paragraph) states only that plaintiff will not hold Grace “responsible for any liability which may result from participation.” Surrounding sentences address other issues: the first gives permission to attend; the second consents to medical treatment; and the fourth agrees to pick up disobedient children.
… nowhere does the form provide parents with information allowing them to assess the degree of risk and the extent of possible injuries from any activity. The form is legally insufficient to release plaintiff’s personal injury claims.

The court then looked at the second major issue that has been surfacing in many outdoor recreation cases of late. The plaintiff sued claiming a violation of the duties owed by the landowner, a premises liability claim. That means that the landowner owed a duty to the plaintiff to warn or eliminate dangers, which the landowner failed to do.

The defendant argued that it was not the landowner; it had just leased the land for the weekend. However, the court found this argument lacking. The premise’s liability statute § 13-21-115(1), C.R.S. 2010, defines landowner to include someone leasing the property.

This places two very important burdens on anyone leasing land or using land.

  1. They must know and identify the risks of the land before bringing their clients/guests/members on the land.
  2. The release must include premise liability language.

The second one is relatively easy to do; however, the effectiveness is going to be difficult. The first places a tremendous burden on anyone going to a camp, park or other place they do not own for the day, weekend or week.

  • Your insurance policy must provide coverage for this type of claim.
  • You need to inspect the land in advance, do a due diligence to make sure you know of any risks or dangers on the land.
  • You must inform your guests/members/clients of those risks.

The final issue that might be of some importance to readers is the court reviewed the legal concept of charitable immunity. At one time, charities could not be sued because they “did good” for mankind. That has evolved over time so that in most states charitable immunity no longer exists. At present, and with this court decision, the assets of the charity held may not be levied by a judgment. What that means is after someone receives a judgment against a charity, the plaintiff with the judgment then attempts to collect against the assets of the charity. Some of the assets may not be recovered by the judgment creditor because they are part of the charitable trust.

What does that mean? If you are a charity, buy insurance.

Of note in this case is the plaintiffs are the injured girl and her insurance company: The opinion states “Plaintiff and her insurer, intervenor American Medical Security Life Insurance Company (insurer).” Although set forth in the decision, her insurance company is probably suing under its right in the subrogation clause. A subrogation clause in an insurance policy says your insurance policy has the right to sue under your name or its own name against anyone who caused your damages that the insurance company reimbursed.

So?

As I have said numerous times, your release must be written by an attorney that understands two things.

  1. Release law
  2. The activities you are going to engage in.
  3. The risks those activities present to your guests/members/clients.
  4. Any statutes that affect your activity and/or your guests/members/clients.

Any release should include a good review of the risks of the activities and a description of the activities so adults and parents can read and understand those risks. Any minor who can read and understand the risks should also sign the release as proof the child assumed the risk. Assumption of the risk works to win cases against minors when the release is thrown out or in those cases where a release cannot be used against a minor.

Find a good attorney that knows and understands your activities, those risks and the laws needed to write a release to protect you.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2010 Recreation Law (720) Edit Law, Recreation.Law@Gmail.com

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