Virgin Islands court upholds release to stop claims by a minor against a program providing benefits for youth

The courts’ analysis concludes if a parent has the right to sue for a minor, because of injuries the minor receives, the parent has the right to sign a release for a minor and give up that right to sue.

Walker vs. Virgin Islands Waste Management Authority, Government of the Virgin Islands, 2015 V.I. LEXIS 8; 62 V.I. 109

State: Virgin Islands, Superior Court of the Virgin Islands, Division of St. Croix

Plaintiff: Brandon Walker

Defendant: Virgin Islands Waste Management Authority, Government of the Virgin Islands, Department of Human Services, Latrell Jacobs and Kareem Casimir, Defendants

Plaintiff Claims:

Defendant Defenses:

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2015

The actual facts of the case are not in the opinion, including what the defendant’s program was or the benefits it provided as well as the injury suffered by the minor. It is also unclear if the defendant is a non-profit. However, reviewing the defendant’s website it is clear it is a for-profit business in conjunction or partnership with the government is running a program to employee youth during the summer.

The program was called the YES program. The program hires youth and counselors for the summer to provide employment for them. The program is tax payor funded.

The plaintiff was a minor who entered into a program offered by the defendant. For the plaintiff to participate in the program, the plaintiff’s mother had to sign a release. While in the program, the minor suffered an injury, and the plaintiff, through his mother, sued. The defendant filed a motion for summary judgement, which was granted based on the release signed by the mother.

This appeal followed.

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

The court first looked at the release to determine if it was valid and supported by Virgin Island law. A release pursuant to the Virgin Islands must first be clear and unequivocal (meaning not ambiguous).

First, the Court examines the language of the Release Agreement pursuant to basic contract law to determine if it is “clear and unequivocal.” A contract is ambiguous “if it is reasonably susceptible of different constructions and capable of being understood in more than one sense.”

Virgin Island law does not allow a release to shield a defendant against gross negligence claims. This was specifically set forth in the release.

The Release Agreement is less than one page long and contains the following relevant language: “In consideration for being permitted to participate in the Youth Environmental Summer Program (YES) the undersigned hereby releases and holds harmless the Virgin Islands Waste Management authority … as well as their employees, agents … FROM ANY AND ALL CLAIMS, DAMAGES (INCLUDING PERSONAL INJURY, PROPERTY OR CONSEQUENTIAL DAMAGES), LIABILITY AND/OR CAUSES OF ACTION, whether resulting from negligence,….

In Booth v. Bowen, the District Court upheld the traditional standard that any portion of a release barring claims of gross negligence is unenforceable, but did not address acts of ordinary negligence.

After reviewing the language of the release the court found it was a valid release under Virgin Island law.

On the basis of the record, the Court finds that the Release Agreement contains broad and unambiguous language that specifically, clearly and unequivocally releases VIWMA from any liability for claims resulting from negligence related to its Youth Environmental Summer Program.

The court then looked at the public policy considerations to determine if a parent or as identified in this case, custodial parent could sign away a minor’s right to sue. Because there was no prior decision concerning this issue in the Virgin Islands, the court undertook a “Banks analysis” to determine the correct common law to apply. This analysis was also used to support the court’s creation of common law. The analysis considered the following issues.

The Court considers three factors in deciding what common law rule to adopt as the applicable standard for an issue in dispute: “(1) whether any Virgin Islands courts have previously adopted a particular rule; (2) the position taken by a majority of courts from other jurisdictions; and (3) most importantly, which approach represents the soundest rule for the Virgin Islands.”

The court then looked at other releases in the Virgin Islands. The release the court found was an admiralty case which had a two-part test to determine if the release was valid and enforceable.

In an admiralty personal injury claim, the District Court upheld the rule that “to be valid, the release must: (1) clearly and unequivocally indicate the intentions of the parties, and (2) not be inflicted by a monopoly, or a party with excessive bargaining power.”

The court then looked at how other jurisdictions had ruled on releases. The court reviewed cases in New Jersey, Ohio, Florida and Michigan to determine how and why those courts had ruled the way those courts ruled. (See States that allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue.)

The court found in its review that courts upheld releases when a non-profit institution was the defendant.

A survey of how other jurisdictions approach the public policy considerations involving a parental guardian’s waiver of her minor child’s future right to bring an action for ordinary negligence suggests that a majority of courts uphold such waivers in the limited circumstance when a waiver protects a non-profit institution from lawsuits based on ordinary negligence.

After making this determination the court then had to apply the law in the way best for the Virgin Islands.

Finally, and most importantly, this Court must examine which approach represents the soundest rule for the Virgin Islands. In this regard, the public policy considerations of the noted jurisdictions are persuasive. The Court notes that there are limited opportunities in the Virgin Islands for elementary and secondary school children to participate in summer and afterschool activities. Many parents do not have the financial resources to take advantage of programs and activities requiring payment of fees or tuition of participants.

If the program were to fail, the burden of employing youth for the summer would shift back to the state.

Because the risk of exposure to liability carries with it the real possibility that VIWMA may be unable or unwilling to provide YES Program tuition-free to its participants, the Court finds that the public interest is best served by upholding the Release Agreement according to its terms.

The court then analyzed the relationship of the parent to the child, from a legal perspective, and made a statement I’ve never seen in a decision before. However, the decision is brilliant in its simplicity and argument that a parent can sign away a minor’s right to sue.

Custodial parents may, as did Alesia Jerrels in this case, lawfully prosecute personal injury claims on behalf of their minor children who have been harmed by the tortious act of third parties, as part of their obligation to provide support. The same provisions that allow a custodial parent to sue on behalf of a minor child conversely permit the parent to enter into a contractual agreement on behalf of the child to agree to forgo the right to sue in exchange for the right to participate in a not-for-profit educational program.

If the parent has the right to sue on behalf of a child, then the parent should have the right to sign away a child’s right to sue.

The court then concluded its analysis with a review of how it found the release was valid.

The release from liability provided in this case in exchange for the right to participate in the YES Program sufficiently protected Plaintiff’s interests from overreaching on the part of VIWMA. To be effective, the Release Agreement must be clear and unambiguous. It may only shield VIWMA from ordinary negligence, but not from gross negligence or the reckless conduct of VIWMA, its agents or employees. The Release Agreement in favor of VIWMA is upheld only because and to the extent that VIWMA acts as a non-profit providing a program of benefit to the community.

Then the court made the same analysis of the value of upholding the release signed by a parent under the laws of the Virgin Islands. Meaning the first analysis was the overall validity of the release, and the second was to the specific issue of the parent signing away the minor’s right to sue.

In balancing the benefits and potential detriments to upholding the Release Agreement, the Court concludes that the soundest rule for the Virgin Islands, and the common law rule it adopts follows the majority of other jurisdictions to uphold the Release Agreement signed by Plaintiff’s custodial parental guardian during his minority, which waives his claims for ordinary negligence against VIWMA, operating as a not-for-profit organization providing a service benefiting the community of the Virgin Islands.

The court upheld the release and dismissed the claims relating to negligence of the plaintiff.

So Now What?

Here is a decision upholding the right of a parent to sue and to release a possible lawsuit from a US territory. The analysis was very different from how courts in other states would have written their decision, but the results were the same.

If, as a parent, you can sue on behalf of your child, then as a parent, you can give up that right to sue on behalf of your child and your child’s right to sue.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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