Mississippi decision requires advance planning and knowledge of traveling in a foreign country before taking minors there.

Based upon this Mississippi decision a greater burden is not placed upon groups taking minor’s out of the country. Those requirements are to research all the possible risks the student may face and to include those risks in the release.

Colyer v. First United Methodist Church of New Albany, 2016 Miss. App. LEXIS 160

State: Mississippi: Court of Appeals of Mississippi

Plaintiff: Deliah Colyer, as Natural Mother and Next Friend of Marshuan Braxton, Deceased, and on Behalf of all Wrongful Death Beneficiaries of Marshuan Braxton, Deceased

Defendant: First United Methodist Church of New Albany and John Does 1-15

Plaintiff Claims: negligence

Defendant Defenses: no negligence and release

Holding: for the plaintiff

Year: 2016

This case concerns a young man who died during a mission trip to Costa Rica. A mission trip is where US citizens, generally go to a third world (or in their mind’s third-world country and perform public service. In this case, the mission was to fly to Costa Rica and construct a sanctuary in Villa Briceno.

The trip was led by the associate pastor of the defendant church. The trip had nine adults and six minors, including the deceased. There were also another four adults and one minor from another church on the trip.

The participants or their parents had to sign a “New Albany First United Methodist Church Youth Medical / Parent Consent form and a Parental Consent form. Braxton also signed a document entitled “Int. Missionary Profile and Release of Claim.”

On the way to the site after landing, the group stopped to pick up lunch. The group then proceeded to a beach to have lunch. The group split up into several smaller groups and went different directions along the beach. The deceased and another boy and two adults when to a rock formation and climbed it. A large wave crashed over them and swept the deceased off the rock into the ocean. Two people were able to swim back to the rock and eventually get out of the ocean.

A lawsuit was filed by the deceased mother, who was not the guardian of the deceased. The trial court, in Mississippi called the circuit court, dismissed the case and the plaintiff’s filed this appeal.

Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.

The court reviewed what was required in Mississippi to prove a negligence claim. “The elements of a prima facie case of negligence are duty, breach, causation, and damages.”

The first issue was the duty owed by the church to the deceased. The defendants admitted that they owed a duty to the deceased; however, the defendant argued that duty was diminished due to the age of the deceased, 17. However, the court found under Mississippi law the age of the victim was not at issue. The duty was the same under the law to anyone who was not an adult. The issue was one for the jury to decide what constituted proper and adequate supervision over the deceased.

The court also gave credence to the idea that the church failed to supervise the deceased by not researching the ocean and rocks first.

Additionally, Colyer alleges other acts of negligence: (1) failure to research the dangers of the Pacific coast and (2) allowing the children, including Braxton, to go onto a dangerous rock structure on the coast of the Pacific Ocean without any knowledge of oceanic activities in Costa Rica.

The next issue was whether the documents signed by the deceased family were valid. The court determined the legal issue in a very scary way.

The deceased’s grandmother was his guardian and signed the documents. However, a guardian does acquire all the legal interests in a minor that a parent has. The guardian has legal control and responsibility of the minor but may not have any other valid interest. In this case, the mother still maintained a recognizable interest in the deceased, a consortium type of claim loss of love, future earnings in some states, etc. She is the plaintiff in the case, and thus the release was not written broadly enough, in fact, probably could not be written broadly enough, for the release to stop the mother’s lawsuit, when it was signed by the guardian. The guardian can sign for the minor but not the parents. One adult cannot sign away another adult’s right to sue.

It is undisputed that the parties in this appeal are not the same parties that executed the waivers. It appears that one of the waivers was signed by Howell, who was Braxton’s grandmother. She signed a “parental consent form,” but she is not a party to this action. Braxton, a seventeen-year-old minor at the time, appeared to have signed the release waiver.

The court then looked into this issue. First because the deceased was a minor, he could not, by law sign the contract (release).

The defendant argued that because the mother was a third party beneficiary of the contract to send the deceased on the trip, she was bound by the contract. However, the court referred to basic contract law that said there was no meeting of the minds. Because the mother did not sign the contract or was not mentioned in the contract she did not have the requirements necessary to be a party to the contract. Therefore, she was not bound by the contract.

The appellate court overruled the trial court find the release did not meet the necessary requirements to stop a lawsuit under Mississippi law.

There was a concurring opinion this decision. That means one of the judges agreed with the decision but wanted to emphasize some point of the law or agreed with the decision overall but for a different legal reasoning. The concurring decision put more emphasize the duties owed to the deceased.

In this case, a duty clearly arose from the relationship between Braxton, a seventeen-year-old minor, and Amanda, the associate pastor and leader of FUNA’s youth mission trip. At the very least, FUNA, by and through its employee, Amanda, bore a duty to use ordinary care to plan and supervise this international mission trip composed of church members to Costa Rica and its shores on the Pacific Ocean. As the facts of this case reflect, a duty also arose and existed to supervise Braxton on the rock formations of the Costa Rica Pacific coastline.

Consequently, the concurring decision believed there was a real issue as to whether the church through its employee, failed to warn against the risk of the beaches and Pacific Ocean. Then the judge seemed to have piled on for failing to check US State Department for travel advisories.

…but she admitted to failing to check with the United States State Department online travel advisory warnings, or any other travel advisories, as to any unsafe beach, tide, or surf conditions in Costa Rica.

(Since when as the state department issued warnings about beaches, the ocean or surf?)

In planning and supervising this trip, a duty existed to warn of the hidden dangers and perils not in plain view that FUNA and its mission trip leader, Amanda, knew, or should have known, existed. Additionally, once the tide rose and the large waves knocked the adults down, Amanda bore a duty to supervise and warn Braxton of the dangerous conditions.

The concurring opinion then addressed the releases in the case. The courts’ reasoning on why the releases where void is because they contained no language warning of the risks of the trip, specifically the risk of the ocean.

The waivers contained no language regarding the liability or risks of recreational activities such as hiking, swimming, or rock climbing on Costa Rica’s beaches on the Pacific Ocean or the risks of the dangerous riptides and dangerous ocean surf.

This requirement is occurring more frequently lately. The courts want to see a list of the risks that can cause injury to the plaintiff in the release. That means there must be more than the legalese necessary for the release to be valid under state law, there must be a list of the risks to the plaintiff. More importantly the risks must include the risk that caused injury to the plaintiff.

The concurring opinion also found that the requirements for a release under Mississippi law had not been met.

Public policy prohibits the use of preinjury waivers of liability for personal injury due to future acts of a defendant’s own negligence. (waiver unenforceable where it did not express intent of student to accept any heightened exposure to injury caused by malfeasance of instructor’s failure to follow safety guidelines); For a waiver to be valid and enforceable, it must not be ambiguous, and it must be specific in wording as to the liability. Waivers will be strictly construed against the defendant. When a waiver contains ambiguous language, it cannot be construed as a waiver of liability for injuries that result from the negligence of the defendant.

Here the lack of information in the release about the risks of the trip and the ocean would have made the release unenforceable according to the concurring judge.

So Now What?

The first issue of concern is the court gave the plaintiff’s a lot of room to bring in far-flung claims of negligence to the trial. Basically, if this stands, you will have to have gone to a site and researched the risks of the site and getting to and from a site before ever taking kids from Mississippi there.

Although this is considered normal when in the outdoors, it has not been the standard of care for travel in communities, cities or normal life. Even though the defendant worked with a local missionary before the trip, the court thought that might not have been enough. The employee of the defendant in charge of the trip had not been to the site and examined it where the deceased died.

The release issue is next and creates a nightmare for recreation providers. If a minor is under the court-ordered  control of a guardian, both the guardian and the minor’s parent, at least in Mississippi, must sign the release as both have an interest that can be used to sue for the minor’s injuries or as in this case, death.

Overall, the appellant decision is scary in the burdens it places upon people organizing trips for minors, which leave the country or possibly even go next door. The entire trip must be researched in advance, the risks researched and examined, and those risks must be provided to the minors and their parents traveling on the trip, or included in the release.

The overview of the case sums the issue up. A hazardous condition was sitting on a rock near the ocean.

It was an error to grant appellee church summary judgment in a wrongful-death suit filed by the appellant, a deceased minor’s mother, because there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the church adequately supervised the minor, whether the child should have been warned of a known hazardous condition, and whether the minor was negligently allowed to engage in dangerous activity….

What is not brought up in this decision is whether or not the release, if valid, would have stopped the suit.

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