Simple Florida camp case with final sentences that provide insight into how courts look at what influenced their decision.Posted: July 28, 2014
This decision was recently upheld by the Florida Supreme Court in Sanislo, et al., v. Give Kids The World, Inc., 157 So. 3d 256; 2015 Fla. LEXIS 214; 40 Fla. L. Weekly S 79
A camp for ill children can be sued by injured parents just as any summer camp. That was not the issue here. The language of the release was the only issue.
State: Florida Court of Appeal, Fifth District
Plaintiff: Stacy Sanislo and Eric Sanislo, in the trial court, defendants on appeal
Defendant: Give Kids The World, Inc., plaintiff on appeal, defendant at the trial court level
Plaintiff Claims: negligence
Defendant Defenses: Release
Holding: for the defendant
This case is fairly mundane from the standpoint of release law. However, the concurring opinion at the end makes a great point that has relevance.
The defendant GKTW (I’ll refer to the parties as they were at the trial court) grants wishes to seriously ill children. The plaintiffs’ applied and were granted the opportunity for their ill child to attend the camp.
While at the camp, a lift on the back of a horse-drawn wagon broke because the weight limit of the lift had been exceeded. The wife, Stacy was injured. She and her husband sued the camp.
The trial court denied the defendants motion for summary judgment on the release signed by the parties. The motion was denied because the trial court found the language in the release did not rise to the level necessary to inform the plaintiff’s they were giving up legal rights. The matter went to, and the plaintiff prevailed in their claims.
The defendant appealed.
Summary of the case
The issue was the same as in many prior cases. First, the plaintiff argued the release language did not meet Florida’s law. The court’s response was quite simple.
Exculpatory clauses are disfavored under the law, but unambiguous exculpatory contracts are enforceable, unless they contravene public policy. The wording of the exculpatory clause must be clear and understandable so that an ordinary and knowledgeable person will know what he or she is contracting away.
The next issue was the release did not contain the word negligence. “This Court has expressly “rejected the need for express language referring to release of the defendant for ‘negligence’ or ‘negligent acts’ in order to render a release effective to bar a negligence action.”
Language such as “any and all liability, claims, demands, actions, and causes of action whatsoever” was sufficient to stop a claim. A release also must not list each way a party can be injured to be effective.
The court then looked at the unequal bargaining position argument: “this Court must consider the parties’ relative bargaining power in determining the enforceability of a release.”
Enforcement of an exculpatory clause has been denied where the relative bargaining power of the contracting parties is unequal and the clause seeks to exempt from liability for negligence the party who occupies a superior bargaining position. However, Florida courts have held that the bargaining power of the parties will not be considered unequal in settings outside of the public utility or public function context.
However athletic contests and recreational activities are public utility nature or a public function.
The final argument was the release was offered as a “take it or leave it” basis. To have their daughters wish fulfilled the plaintiff’s had to sign a release. However parental desire to fulfill a child’s wish is not unequal bargaining power.
The court then made this final statement. They [the plaintiff’s] were provided a copy of the release at the time they applied to the Make-A-Wish Foundation and made a decision to waive certain rights. GKTW is entitled to enforcement of that release.
Of interest was the concurring opinion. A concurring opinion is one where a judge on the appeal panel agrees with the outcome, but his agreement is based on a different legal issue or the judge wants to make a point. It does not change the opinion, and it does not add additional weight to the opinion. However, it is usually quite educational and provides an opportunity to understand the court.
In this case, the concurring opinion looked at the issue of the language of the release.
…a release should be readily understandable so that an ordinary and knowledgeable person would know what is being contracted away. I would suggest that the average ordinary and knowledgeable person would not understand from such language that they were absolving an entity from a duty to use reasonable care. Conversely, a clause which provides a waiver of liability for one’s own negligence is easily understood.
The great statement was the last. “The other district courts of appeal have recognized how simple it is to add such a clause in a release. I suggest we do the same.”
So Now What?
This is a simple summer camp case, except the injured party was the parent rather than the child. If you run a summer camp, you may want to make sure your release covers all family members, not just the campers. Parents picking up their children can be hurt as well as siblings who are investigating the outdoors while there.
However, the great take away points are the last sentences in the opinion and the concurring opinion.
1. Get the release to the parties in advance
2. Use the word negligence in your release.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
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