Tennessee still does not allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue, but might enforce a jurisdiction and venue clause, maybe an arbitration clause.

The release was written poorly choosing California as the forum state for the lawsuit and applying California law. The accident occurred in Tennessee, and the defendant was based in Nevada so the court quickly through the venue and jurisdiction clauses out.

Blackwell, v. Sky High Sports Nashville Operations, LLC. 2017 Tenn. App. LEXIS 6

State: Tennessee, Court of Appeals of Tennessee, at Nashville

Plaintiff: Crystal Blackwell, as Next Friend to Jacob Blackwell, a Minor

Defendant: Sky High Sports Nashville Operations, LLC

Plaintiff Claims: negligence

Defendant Defenses: release

Holding: for the plaintiff

Year: 2017

Another trampoline case, another stretch outside the normal subject matter of these articles, however, the case is instructive on two points. (1.) The court just slammed the defendant’s release based on a jurisdiction and venue clause that had nothing to do with the place where the accident occurred and (2.) The judge stated a jurisdiction and venue clause in a release; if it met Tennessee’s law would be valid when signed by a parent to stop the claims of a child.

The minor plaintiff was injured while jumping on a trampoline at the defendant’s facility in Nashville, Tennessee. Prior to his injury, his mother signed a release. The minor plaintiff visited the defendant’s facilities on numerous occasions prior to his injury. He was injured playing a game of trampoline dodgeball.

The release included a forum selection (venue) clause, which stipulated California was the site of any lawsuit applying California law. (California allows a mother to sign away a parent’s right to sue. See States that allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue).

The mother and the son sued the defendant. The defendant filed a motion to change parties, meaning the defendant named in the lawsuit was not the defendant who owned the facility where the accident occurred. The parties eventually stipulated to that, and the correct parties were identified and in the lawsuit. The defendant filed a motion to enforce the contract between the parties, meaning the lawsuit should be moved to California as stated in the release. The motion also stated the claims made by the mother should be dismissed because she signed the release.

The mother voluntarily dismissed her claims against the defendant. By doing so, the defendant was now arguing release law only against the minor plaintiff in a state with a long history of denying those releases. (See States that allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue).

The trial court had a hearing on the issue of the venue and jurisdiction clauses and ruled them unenforceable.

Therein, the trial court ruled that neither the forum selection clause nor the choice of law provision were valid because their enforcement would cause a great hardship for Son to prosecute his action in California and, Tennessee, rather than California, has “a more significant relationship to the facts surrounding this case.”

The court also ruled that the release was not valid to protect against the claims of the minor, now the sole plaintiff in the case finding “The trial court also noted that Tennessee’s law included a fundamental public policy regarding the protection of children.”

The trial court eventually granted the defendant’s motion for an interlocutory appeal. An interlocutory appeal is an appeal prior to the granting of a final decision by the court. This type of appeal is rare and only done when one party can argue the issue should be decided by the appellate court prior to going to trial and has a good basis for their argument.

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

The Appellate Court found four issues to review:

1. Whether the trial court erred in refusing to enforce the forum selection clause contained in the release?

2. Whether the trial court erred in refusing to enforce the choice of law provision contained in the release?

3. Whether the trial court erred in refusing to enforce the waiver of liability against Son contained in the release signed by Mother?

4. Whether the trial court erred in refusing to allow the amendment to the complaint to allow Son to recover for pre-majority medical expenses.

Starting with issue one the court looked at the exact same issues discussed in Your Jurisdiction and Venue clause must be relevant to the possible location of the accident. Screw this up and you can void your release as occurred in this ski racing case. The court started with the general law concerning venue or forum selection clauses.

Generally, a forum selection clause is enforceable and binding on the parties entering into the contract. A forum selection clause will be upheld if it is fair and reasonable in light of all the circumstances surrounding its origin and application.

Forum selection clauses will be enforced unless:

(1) the plaintiff cannot secure effective relief in the other state, for reasons other than delay in bringing the action; (2) or the other state would be a substantially less convenient place for the trial of the action than this state; (3) or the agreement as to the place of the action was obtained by misrepresentation, duress, abuse of economic power, or other unconscionable means; (4) or it would for some other reason be unfair or unreasonable to enforce the agreement.

The forum selection clause is valid unless the party arguing against the clause proves it would be unfair and inequitable. “Tennessee law is clear, however, that the party challenging the enforcement of the forum selection clause “should bear a heavy burden of proof.”

The plaintiffs were from Tennessee, and the accident occurred in Tennessee. All the plaintiff’s witnesses were from Tennessee because that is where the injured minor received his medical treatment. The defendant was a Nevada corporation doing business in Nevada. However, the defendant’s release stated that California was the place for any litigation. The reason for that is California allows a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue. (See States that allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue).

California was obviously a “less convenient place” to have a trial because the majority, if not all the witnesses, were based in Tennessee. However, inconvenience or annoyance is not enough to invalidate a venue clause, nor will increased cost of litigating the case.

Still, the Tennessee Supreme Court has previously held that where neither company at issue was a resident of the proposed forum and none of the witnesses were residents of the proposed forum, the party resisting a forum selection clause had met its burden to show that the proposed forum was a substantially less convenient forum.

What triggered the court in its decision is the total lack of any real relationship of the parties to the case or the facts of the case to California. Add to that California first issue, the law would allow the release to be effective. Under Tennessee’s law, California would not provide a fair forum for the plaintiff. The release was signed in Tennessee, which the court stated was the default location for the litigation. “Tennessee follows the rule of lex loci contractus. This rule provides that a contract is presumed to be governed by the law of the jurisdiction in which it was executed absent a contrary intent.”

The choice of law or jurisdiction question sunk for the same reason.

Instead, the choice of law provision fails for largely the same reason that the forum selection clause fails: no material connection exists between the transaction at issue and California. As previously discussed, the contract at issue was signed in Tennessee, between Tennessee residents and a Nevada company, concerning activities taking place in Tennessee. Black’s Law Dictionary defines “material” as “[h]aving some logical connection with the consequential facts.” The simple fact that Sky High’s parent company was founded in California over a decade ago and now operates several facilities there is simply not sufficient to show a logical connection to the transaction at issue in this case.

The choice of law provision in Tennessee and most if not all states, will be honored when there is a “material connection” to the transactions at issue. That means that a jurisdiction and venue clause must be based where the plaintiff is, where the defendant is or where the accident happened. IF the jurisdiction and venue clause is based on the defendant’s location, the courts are looking for more than just location. They want witnesses needed to be there or a real reason why the defendant’s location to be the site of the trial and the law to be applied.

After throwing out the jurisdiction and venue clauses in the release for being an attempt to get around an issue, the court then looked at the release itself. The court first looked at limitations on releases in Tennessee.

These types of agreements, however, are subject to some important exceptions, such as waivers involving gross negligence or willful conduct or those involving a public duty. These types of provisions must also be clear and unambiguous.

The plaintiff’s argument was the release violated Tennessee’s public policy.

[T]he public policy of Tennessee is to be found in its constitution, statutes, judicial decisions and applicable rules of common law.'” “Primarily, it is for the legislature to determine the public policy of the state, and if there is a statute that addresses the subject in question, the policy reflected therein must prevail.”

To determine if a contract violates public policy the court must look at the purpose of the contract, if the contract will have a detrimental effect on the public. “‘The principle that contracts in contravention of public policy are not enforceable should be applied with caution and only in cases plainly within the reasons on which that doctrine rests.’”

The court then reviewed the Childress decision in detail and found it to still be viable law in Tennessee.

Based on the foregoing, we conclude that there is no basis to depart from this Court’s well-reasoned decision in Childress. Because the law in Tennessee states that parents may not bind their minor children to pre-injury waivers of liability, releases, or indemnity agreements, the trial court did not err in refusing to enforce the waiver of liability and indemnity provisions of the release signed by Mother on behalf of Son.

This court agreed, releases signed by parents to stop claims of a minor are invalid in Tennessee. Tennessee now has two appellate court decisions prohibiting a parent from signing away a minor’s right to sue. The Tennessee Supreme Court declined to review the decision, Blackwell v. Sky High Sports Nashville Operations, LLC, 2017 Tenn. LEXIS 305.

The court then looked at a motion filed by the plaintiff to increase the damages based on pre-majority medical expenses. These were medical bills paid by the mother prior to the injured plaintiff reaching the age of 18. Those bills under Tennessee’s law where the mother’s bills, the person who paid them, however, since she had dismissed her claims, those damages were no longer part of the suit. Now the plaintiff was trying to include them in the injured plaintiff’s claims.

The court denied that motion based on the release the mother signed, which prevented her claims and the plaintiff as a minor had no legal duty to pay those bills, only the mother could. Therefore, those damages could not be included in the lawsuit.

The release in that regard proved valuable to the defendant because the medical bills incurred right after the accident were the largest amount of claims to be paid.

So Now What?

This is a great example of a case where the local business accepted the release from above, home office, without checking to see if that release was valid. This occurs every day, with the same results, when an insured asks for a release from their insurance company or a new franchise opens up and accepts the paperwork from the franchisor as is.

Always have your release reviewed to see if it meets the needs of your business and the laws of your state.

The release was effective to stop the lawsuit for claims made by the mother of the injured minor. Those medical bills paid by the mother were probably substantial and would the largest amount of claims owed. In many cases with the reduced amount of medical bills, other damages would be significantly reduced because those damages tend to be a factor of the medical bills.

What is of note in this decision is the jurisdiction and venue clause, or choice of law and forum selection clause as defined in the decision would have been upheld if it was not so absurd. If the choice of law clause was based on the requirements that it have some relationship to the parties or the accident, it seems to have been a valid decision and upheld.

If you are interested in having me write your release, fill out this Information Form and Contract and send it to me.

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Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

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By Recreation Law Rec-law@recreation-law.com James H. Moss

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