Kentucky determines that a parent cannot sign away a child’s right to sue.Posted: July 22, 2019
Courts are allowed to pick and choose the case law they relied upon and to distinguish or ignore the case law the court does not like. In this case, the Kentucky Supreme Court ignored law it did not like or simply found a way around the case law it did not want to agree with.
State: Kentucky, Supreme Court of Kentucky
Plaintiff: Kathy Miller, as Next Friend of Her Minor Child, E.M.
Defendant: House of Boom Kentucky, LLC
Plaintiff Claims: negligence
Defendant Defenses: release
Holding: for the plaintiff
Kentucky Supreme Court rules that a parent cannot sign away a minor’s right to sue.
House of Boom, LLC (“House of Boom”) is a for-profit trampoline park located in Louisville, Kentucky. The park is a collection of trampoline and acrobatic stunt attractions. On August 6, 2015, Kathy Miller purchased tickets for her 11-year-old daughter, E.M., and her daughter’s friends to go play at House of Boom. Before purchasing the tickets, House of Boom required the purchaser to check a box indicating that the purchaser had read the waiver of liability.
Once Miller checked the box, E.M. participated in activities at House of Boom. She was injured when another girl jumped off a three-foot ledge and landed on E.M’s ankle, causing it to break. Miller, as next friend of her daughter, sued House of Boom for the injury. House of Boom, relying on Miller’s legal power to waive the rights of her daughter via the release, moved for summary judgment. The Western District of Kentucky concluded that House of Boom’s motion for summary judgment involved a novel issue of state law and requested Certification from this Court which we granted. Both parties have briefed the issue and the matter is now ripe for Certification.
So, the plaintiff sued in Federal District Court. Because the issue of whether or not a parent could sign away a minor’s right to sue had not been reviewed by the Kentucky Supreme Court, the federal district court asked the Kentucky Supreme Court to review the case. The Kentucky Supreme court did with this decision.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The sole question before the court was whether a parent could sign away a minor’s right to sue.
The question before this Court is whether a parent has the authority to sign a pre-injury exculpatory agreement on behalf of her child, thus terminating the child’s potential right to compensation for an injury occurring while participating in activities sponsored by a for-profit company.
The court in reviewing the case law from other states on this issue decided the cases had been determined in one of four categories.
House of Boom categorizes these decisions in as those that enforced the waiver and those that did not, but the decisions of those jurisdictions more accurately fall into four distinct categories: (1) jurisdictions that have enforced a waiver between a parent and a for-profit entity; (2) jurisdictions that have enforced waivers between a parent and a non-profit entity; (3) jurisdictions that have declared a waiver between a parent and a for-profit entity unenforceable; and (4) jurisdictions that have declared a waiver between a parent and a non-profit entity unenforceable.
By making this distinction in the cases to start, the court immediately eliminated much of the case law supporting the defendants. In most states, a non-profit has no different legal duty to patrons then a for profit, and none that I can find in Kentucky. However, by using these categories the court was able to place this case in the category with only one other decision that could support the defendant.
House of Boom is a for-profit trampoline park, and eleven out of twelve jurisdictions that have analyzed similar waivers between parents and for-profit entities have adhered to the common law and held such waivers to be unenforceable.
The court then justified it classifications and reasoning by stating a commercial entity had more ways to deal with the cost of the liability than a non-profit.
A commercial entity has the ability to purchase insurance and spread the cost between its customers. It also has the ability to train its employees and inspect the business for unsafe conditions.
However, none of the factors listed above are any different from the situations or requirements to do business for a non-profit operation.
The court then fell back on a legal fallacy that plaintiffs have been arguing for years.
A child has no similar ability to protect himself from the negligence of others within the confines of a commercial establishment. “If pre-injury releases were permitted for commercial establishments, the incentive to take reasonable precautions to protect the safety of minor children would be removed.
However, no cases I’ve read have ever stated that the injury was caused because the defendant did not have to deal with liability issues. Any breach of a duty of care that has occurred were not across the board, just spotty.
The court concluded:
Under the common law of this Commonwealth, absent special circumstances, a parent has no authority to enter into contracts on a child’s behalf.
So Now What?
The plaintiff’s mother purchased tickets for several kids. So, for the majority of the children, the release was void to begin with. One release was signed for multiple possible plaintiffs by someone who did not have the legal authority to sign on their behalf anyway.
The category’s trick was interesting. By restricting the cases it reviewed to artificial categories the Kentucky Supreme Court eliminated several cases that supported the defendant’s position. On top of that, it also then ignored cases after the initial cases it reviewed that supported the use of a release signed by a parent for a child in for-profit or commercial situations.
The Ohio Supreme Court found that a parent could sign away a minor’s right to sue in a non-profit case: Zivich v. Mentor Soccer Club, Inc., 696 N.E.2d 201, 82 Ohio St.3d 367 (1998). Subsequent decisions in Ohio by the appellate courts have also upheld a release signed by the parent of the injured child: Ohio Appellate decision upholds the use of a release for a minor for a commercial activity.
By placing blinders on the case law it was looking at, it is a lot easier to ignore decisions you do not want to deal with.
It is disturbing when a court, weaves its way through case law to reach a conclusion it could have easily reached without circular path. Either the court works its way around lots of decisions or the court realized this decision was going against the general flow of law in the US on this issue and wanted to justify its decision.
Statutes and prior law in Kentucky say a parent’s rights are not absolute in controlling their child and thus a parent cannot sign away their minor child’s right to sue.
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