What is a Release?Posted: October 27, 2010
All outdoor recreation, travel, tourism and fitness businesses use a release, (or should use a release). However, the legal description of what is a release is rarely explained to the business clients using them or the clients of the business signing them.
A Release is also known as Waiver. Some parts of the country also use the term Covenant Not to Sue to identify the clause in a release that prevents lawsuits. The Negligence Clause is another term for the actual part of the contract that prevents the possible lawsuit. Therefore, in most cases the term Release, Waiver or Covenant Not to Sue are interchangeable and have more of a geographic definition rather than a different legal definition.
Release is the word that is adopted as the term to describe the types of agreements we are discussing here by the majority of states. Waiver and covenant not to sue are used by a few southern states to describe these documents.
A release is a contract. A contract is an agreement between two or more parties, with consideration flowing to both parties and a meeting of the minds as to the terms of the contract. Contracts cannot be for illegal activities or things and most be enforceable by the courts.
Contracts are the basis for commerce in the world; how one party sells goods or services and the other party buys goods or services.
There must be two and can be thousands of parties to a contract. Each party must receive something of value or benefit. Each party must understand the basic terms of the contract. Not every term must be known or understood in the contract.
Consideration, the benefit or value in a contract, is easily defined as money, and in most contacts makes up one part of the transaction. With a local shopkeeper, a contact to buy a t-shirt consists of consideration (money) flowing to the shopkeeper and the purchaser receiving the t-shirt. Both parties knew the terms of the contract and both understood that was the purpose of the contract. The contract by the way was oral. Contracts can be in writing or can be oral. Oral contacts are hard to prove in a court.
In an outdoor recreation case, the consideration is money flowing to the outfitter and the opportunity to engage in the activity by the guest.
Contracts cannot be for illegal activities. Gambling debts are not enforceable in most states so a contract to pay a gambling debt is illegal. Most states, but not all, have done away with contracts for marriage also. (Marriage is not illegal, just to contract for a marriage is illegal.) Courts are reluctant to force people to act or do something specific such as standing on their head as an easy example.
A release then is a contract that covers something that may or may not happen in the future. It is the fact that the contract may not actually be enforced because of some future date that gives releases their special place in the law.
A release is also different from most contracts because the release is a contract where one party gives up or releases a future right, the right to sue. This possibility of giving up a future right is one of the issues that courts are divided on and that cause courts problems. The right is the right to sue, a right that is given to US citizens in our constitution. As such, the courts scrutinize any constitutional right that is given up by a party. However, most courts have agreed that if the right is in writing and voluntarily given up for consideration, the release will be upheld. The right to contract between parties is greater and more important than the right to sue in most, but not all state supreme courts.
As stated earlier, contracts can be oral or written. Because a future right is at stake in releases, most courts will not enforce an oral release, such as reading the release over the phone to someone and having them agree to the terms of the release. At the same time, you should review electronic contracts and agreements, which are valid.
Release law is determined by each state; as such, it is difficult to define a release in an article written for the masses because of the different requirements of some states. In addition, some states have different requirements or statutory requirements for releases in some activities or recreational sports then other. Also, states are changing their stands on releases each year. Wisconsin, Arizona and Connecticut have done so in the past couple of years.
However, there are some general issues common to all releases and required in most states that support releases.
A release should use the magic word negligence. Negligence is the legal term for an accident that gives rise to a lawsuit. The release should state that your guests release you from any negligence on your part. Lacking this term, your release is a piece of paper with little value in the majority of states.
The second most important clause is the jurisdiction and venue clause. This clause defines the law of the state that will be applied to the case to interpret the release and the place where the lawsuit will be held. Your state law may uphold releases. However, your customer maybe from a state that does not support releases. Jurisdiction and venue clauses prevent your customer from dragging you into a different state and voiding your release.
The signature is also critical. For someone to sue on a breach of contract or to enforce a contract, the person who is being sued or the release that is being enforced must be signed. Therefore, the injured guest is the person who must sign the contract to have the release enforced. It is not necessary to witness the signature. The date and time of the accident along with the type of payment, usually a credit card will confirm the person was there and signed a release. In addition, handwriting experts can verify a signature.
Initialing paragraphs is also of no value and may cause problems. The courts look for a signature and nothing else. It does not matter to the courts if the release has been read. Initialing paragraphs may create a problem if one paragraph is not initialed. Does that mean that paragraph does not apply? Nor has the author ever found a case where the court commented on the initialed paragraphs as being necessary or important.
Initials, however, may be necessary if the paper that is being used has different contracts on it. The classic is a car rental contract. Part of the contract is a release and a promise to pay. That gets a signature. Declining additional insurance or promising to bring the car back full of gas are different contracts and as such initials might help prove those parts of the contract. However, if your document is one or two pieces of paper with one purpose and no white spaces or added information, you only need a signature.
There is a real difference of opinions between some attorneys as to the need to identify the risks of the activity. Most activities have so many possible risks that the release would be endless if it listed them all. However, there are two valid reasons for putting at least some of the possible risks in a release. The release has better “legal balance” if some of the risks are listed. It provides a background or a basis for the release if the document states some of the reasons for the reason behind the release. Courts always comment that the injury the plaintiff is complaining about was listed in the release.
A release with risks in it can also be used as assumption of the risk document. If the release is thrown out, the release can be used to prove the person assumed the risks and either eliminate a lawsuit or reduce the damages. For this to work, the risks of the activity must be in the release.
Because of state and federal laws concerning a release of medical information and the possibility of an injury, you should probably include a release for first aid care and release of medical information. Although federal HIPPA laws may not affect you, many states medical information privacy acts may. First aid negligence lawsuits rare, but they occur occasionally and are very dangerous. As such, you should include a release for any medical care you provide and any medical information you collect or pass on to other people.
There are dozens of other factors and clauses that may need to be included in your release. These are going to be dependent the state that is identified in your jurisdiction and venue clause, any state statutes that control releases or state laws that control the activity that the release covers. The type of activity you are providing, the guests you are recruiting and how close medical care is, may also change your release. Finally, any release for activities outside of the US must be written carefully.
Any article about releases always ends with a disclaimer and an admonition. The disclaimer is releases work in most states. However, release law changes every month. New state statures or Supreme Court justices can change the law affecting releases and subsequently your business.
The admonition is your release must be written by an attorney. The easiest example of this admonition is the courts. Releases written by attorneys are rarely contested in court. The releases you see in appellate and Supreme Court decisions are always those written by non-attorneys. The attorney you choose should also be one that understands release law and your business to give you the best chance at staying out of court.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
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