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North Carolina may allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue for injuries when the minor is engaged in non-profit activities sponsored by schools, volunteers, or community organizations

Kelly v. United States of America, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 89741

However, the decision was not made by the North Carolina Supreme Court and not a ruling by the court and the actual legal issue.

In this case the plaintiff, a fifteen year old minor went on an orientation visit to Camp Lejeune as part of her Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program at her high school. While participating in the confidence course (or what used to be called the obstacle course) she was injured. Her injuries were not identified in the lawsuit; however, she was suing for $10,000,000.00.

The minor could not attend the camp unless she and her mother signed the release.

The reason for the decision was based on the plaintiff’s motion to strike the defendants’ answers. This is a preliminary motion that attempts to knock out the specific defenses of the defendant. One of the defenses the plaintiff attempted to eliminate was the defense of release.

This order and decision from the court are not a final decision on the merits of the case. This is only a preliminary motion; however, it is interesting in how the court ruled on the issue of the mother signing the release.

So?

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The court reviewed release law in general and found that in North Carolina, releases are generally enforceable. Releases are strictly construed against the party attempting to enforce them (the defendants). To be valid in North Carolina a release cannot be enforced if it:

(1) is violative of a statute;

(2) is gained through inequality of bargaining power; or

(3) is contrary to a substantial public interest.

The release in this case did not violate any of the above three prohibitions.

The court then looked at whether the release signed by the minor plaintiff was valid. Under North Carolina law, like all other states, a release signed by a minor is voidable by the minor unless it meets rare exceptions. The exception to the contract prohibition is contracts for necessities or when a statute allows a minor to sign a contract. Here, neither of these issues was the reason the release was signed. So the release signed by the minor has no value and is void.

The court then looked at the release signed by the mother. The court found that a minority of states that had looked at the issue, had found releases for minors signed by parents so the minor could engage in “non-profit activities sponsored by schools, volunteers, or community organizations.”

The analysis then looked at whether the North Carolina Supreme Court would hold the same way. The activity the minor engaged in was extracurricular and voluntary and done for the benefit of the child. As such the court held the North Carolina Supreme Court would hold the release valid.

So Now What?

Before a rule, law can be cast in wet concrete (nothing is ever cast in stone) it must be decided by the highest court in the state. Here, the federal court looking at the issue made the decision. The North Carolina Supreme Court at some later time could decide that this is not the way it wants to rule.

Furthermore, the ruling is not that the release signed by the mother is valid. The ruling is the defense of release being argued by the defendant is not thrown out by the court. The legal issue of whether or not the release is a valid release under North Carolina law is still at issue.

The decision is important and will probably be followed later in the case, but there is no guaranty. However, it is a positive step to stop lawsuits.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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