Get check boxes and initials out of your release!

If the defendants release did not have a catch all phrase at the bottom of the document the release would be invalid because an initial had not been signed by the plaintiff.

Scott-Moncrieff v. Lost Trails, LLC, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146936 *; 2018 WL 4110742

State: Pennsylvania: United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Patrice Scott-Moncrieff

Defendant: The Lost Trails, LLC, et al

Plaintiff Claims: Plaintiff argues that Plaintiff did not sign a waiver on the date of the accident, and therefore did not waive any liability or assume any risk; that she was rushed and unable to read the original waiver in its entirety; that the waiver is unenforceable as not properly conspicuous; and finally, that because the earlier waiver signed by Plaintiff was “for all time thereafter” it should not be enforced.

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the defendant

Year: 2018

Summary

The plaintiff did not initial one of the initial boxes on the release she signed. This gave the plaintiff enough of an argument to make an appellate argument. But for a final paragraph that covered the uninitialed box language this release would have failed.

Facts

On October 20, 2013, Plaintiff visited Defendant’s ATV facility for the first time and, prior to using the facility, executed a waiver of liability. Plaintiff did not read the waiver in its entirety prior to signing it, and claims she was rushed during the process. On June 22, 2014, Plaintiff returned to the facility, at which time she alleged suffered injuries when she was thrown from the ATV she was riding.

Plaintiff initialed all of the above provisions. She did not initial paragraph 10 on the next page, however, which states as follows:

l0. Having had ample time and opportunity to raise any concerns or questions that I may have, and having read and understood the information, I certify my acceptance of the aforementioned provisions by signing below.

I am in good health and physical condition. I am voluntarily participating with knowledge that dangers are involved and agree to assume all risks. I also understand that if I am injured or become ill, I agree that Lost Trails LLC, or any of its employees, volunteers or guests will not be held liable should they render medical assistance to me or my minor child.

Despite not specifically initialing paragraph 10, Plaintiff did sign the agreement, indicating her acceptance and understanding of the exculpatory clauses.

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

The court first reviewed the validity of releases under Pennsylvania law. Pennsylvania has a three-part test to determine if releases are valid.

An exculpatory clause is valid if the following conditions are met: 1) the clause does not contravene public policy; 2) the contract is between parties relating entirely to their own private affairs; and 3) the contract is not one of adhesion. A valid exculpatory clause is only enforceable if “the language of the parties is clear that a person is being relieved of liability for his own acts of negligence.”. A waiver of liability violates public policy only if it involves “a matter of interest to the public or the state. Such matters of interest to the public or the state include the employer-employee relationship, public service, public utilities, common carriers, and hospitals.” The exculpatory clause at issue in this case does not contravene public policy because it does not affect a matter of interest to the public or the state.

The three requirements all evolve around the public policy argument. It is against public policy to have someone sign a release for a necessity, where the bargaining power is not equal or if the contract is so nasty it should not be signed by anyone. A release, a contract, to ride an ATV is valid because it is not a necessity, it is between parties of equal bargaining power and it is voluntary.

The contract meets the third prong of the Topp Copy validity standard because it is not a contract of adhesion. Agreements to participate in “voluntary sporting or recreational activities” are not contracts of adhesion because “[t]he signer is a free agent who can simply walk away without signing the release and participating in the activity, and thus the contract signed under such circumstances is not unconscionable.” “The signer is under no compulsion, economic or otherwise, to participate, much less to sign the exculpatory agreement, because it does not relate to essential services, but merely governs a voluntary recreational activity.”

If the release passes the first three tests, it still must be scrutinized by the court to determine if it clearly relieves the defendant of liability. If the language of the agreement sets forth the requirements necessary for the plaintiff to understand she is liable for her injuries.

Even if an exculpatory clause is facially valid, it is enforceable only if it clearly relieves a party of liability for its own negligence. The following standards guide a court’s determination of the enforceability of an exculpatory clause:

1) the contract language must be construed strictly, since exculpatory language is not favored by the law; 2) the contract must state the intention of the parties with the greatest particularity, beyond doubt by express stipulation, and no inference from words of general import can establish the intent of the parties; 3) the language of the contract must be construed, in cases of ambiguity, against the party seeking immunity from liability; and 4) the burden of establishing the immunity is upon the party invoking protection under the clause.

If the release, or any contract under Pennsylvania law meets those tests it is finally reviewed to determine if both parties clearly understood the intent of the agreement. In the case of a release, both parties must understand that the possible plaintiff is giving up his or her right to sue the possible defendant.

Further, the language of the waiver is clear. In interpreting the language of a contract, courts attempt to ascertain the intent of the parties and give it effect. When a writing is clear and unequivocal, its meaning must be determined by its contents alone. “[I]t is not the function of this Court to re-write it, or to give it a construction in conflict with … the accepted and plain meaning of the language used.” Here, the language of the waiver form is unequivocal in stating the intent that it is binding for all time thereafter.

In this case, the court found the release passed all of the tests.

As such, the Court finds that the October 2013 waiver executed by Plaintiff was in effect during her June 2014 visit to Defendant’s property.1

Once the release was found to be valid the next issue was whether or not the plaintiff had signed the release. The plaintiff argued because she had not initialed an initial box, had not read the release in its entirety

One who is about to sign a contract has a duty to read that contract first.” In the absence of fraud, the failure to read a contract before signing it is “an unavailing excuse or defense and cannot justify an avoidance, modification or nullification of the contract.” (Under Pennsylvania law, the failure to read a contract does not nullify the contract’s validity.)

The court did look at situations were the release was enforceable even if the plaintiff did not read the release or could not read the release.

…(written release found to be enforceable even when the agreement was in English but the plaintiff only read and spoke Spanish, noting that the “[p]laintiff cannot argue that the release language was inconspicuous or somehow hidden from his attention…. Nor did Defendant have an obligation to verify that [p]laintiff had read and fully understood the terms of the document before he signed his name to it.”). In this case, there is no allegation or evidence of fraud, and as such, Plaintiff’s argument is without merit.

The plaintiff argued the release was unenforceable because it was inconspicuous. However, the argument seemed to be based on case law that found waivers to be void then the real facts of this case.

The waiver form in this case was two pages in length, and initialed and signed by Plaintiff. It was not, like the waiver in Beck-Hummel, printed in small font on the back of a tubing ticket. This was a waiver that was reviewed, initialed and signed by Plaintiff. As such, the requirements of conspicuity set forth in Beck-Hummel would not necessarily apply.

The saving language of the release that covered the un-initialed section 10 was. Even though paragraph 10 was not initialed, the heading clearly stated what the document was and the intentions of the parties. The language that covered the un-initialed paragraph 10 was:

I HAVE READ THIS RELEASE OF LIABILITY, WAIVER OF LEGAL RIGHTS AND ASSUMPTIONS OF RISK AND FULLY UNDERSTAND ITS CONTENTS. I SIGN IT WILLINGLY, VOLUNTARILY AND HAVING HAD AMPLE OPPORTUNITY TO RAISE ANY QUESTIONS OR CONCERNS THAT I MAY HAVE, I ACKNOWLEDGE THAT I AM PARTICIPATING VOLUNTARILY WITH KNOWLEDGE THAT DANGERS ARE INVOLVED AND I AGREE TO ASSUME ALL THE RISKS.

The court found that the entire agreement was covered by this saving language above. So, the failure to initial one paragraph was not enough to void the release.

The court summarized its reasoning for finding the release valid and upholding the dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims because of the release.

These clauses are conspicuously set apart, appearing in capital letters, and in the case of the final paragraph, fully set apart, in all bold and all capitals. Further, the agreement itself is titled “Waiver Form” which notifies the reader of the purpose of the form. Plaintiff initialed the paragraphs setting forth the exculpatory clauses,2 and signed the agreement directly underneath the final, most prominent waiver clause. As such, the Court finds that the exculpatory clauses are valid and enforceable.

So Now What?

But for language at the bottom of the release which the court found to cover for the language that was not initialed the release would have failed. It is important to note; the court analysis stated the language that was not initialed was not part of the release.

If you have initial boxes, initials, etc., and one box is not initialed, in Pennsylvania that paragraph that is not initialed or initialed is invalid. Dependent upon the language, your release maybe void, if you don’t have the boxes checked or initialed.

Why use them anyway. Here the court explains why they are unnecessary, the language at the bottom of your release should tie everything together. Once you sign you acknowledge that you have read and understood the entire document. The checkboxes or initials can only hurt you in a release, not help you.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2018 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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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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