Minnesota Appellate court upholds a release signed by a mother for a child’s injuries

Court also upheld the settlement agreement signed by the parents was valid to prohibit a claim by the minor after turning age 18

Justice v. Marvel, LLC, 965 N.W.2d 335 (Minn. App. 2021)

State:
Minnesota, Court of Appeals of Minnesota

Plaintiff: Carter Justice

Defendant: Marvel, LLC d/b/a Pump It Up Parties

Plaintiff Claims: negligently failed to cover the landing surface of the fall zone surrounding the inflatable

Defendant Defenses: Settlement and Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2021

Summary

The plaintiff was injured as a minor at an indoor recreation facility. The parents settled with the facility at the time of the injury. When the minor reached the age of majority in Minnesota he sued the facility. The Appellate court upheld the release signed by the parent to stop the minors claims and the settlement agreement.

Facts

In February 2007, Justice attended a friend’s birthday party at an indoor amusement facility in the city of Plymouth. The facility, known as Pump It Up, was owned and operated by Marvel, L.L.C. Upon entering the facility, Justice’s mother, Michelle Sutton, was asked to sign, and did sign, a form agreement….

During the party, while playing on an inflatable obstacle course, Justice fell approximately six feet and hit his head on the carpeted floor. He was taken to a hospital, where he received treatment.

In September 2007, Sutton and her husband, Steve Sutton, who is Justice’s step-father, entered into a written agreement with Marvel. The one-page agreement states that the Suttons had incurred unreimbursed medical expenses as a result of Justice’s head injury and that Marvel agreed to pay $1,500 of those expenses. The agreement provided that, if no new medical complications arose within six months, the Suttons would “execute a full and complete release and discharge of any and all claims” against Marvel. The Suttons did not thereafter execute such a release.

In June 2018, after Justice had turned 18 years old, he commenced this action against Marvel.

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

This is the first case I’ve found in the recreation community where a minor sued upon reaching the age of majority for an injury the minor received years before. Injured minors are the lawsuits that seem to hang on forever. In some cases, you want the parents to present a claim so you can deal with it and not possible wait tent to fifteen years for the minor to turn 18 (or 19 or 21 dependent on the state See The age that minors become adults.) to sue on their own.

The defendant had two defenses. 1. The release that the mother had signed for her son at the time of the injury (pre-injury release). 2. The release the mother and father had signed at the time of the injury to settle the claim (post injury release).

The court looked at the basic issues surrounding a parents’ right to raise a child and whether this right includes the right to sign away a minor’s right to sue.

His first argument for voiding the release is also unique. After his mother signed the release, Minnesota passed a statute to regulate amusement parks like this and in the process lost the right to have a parent sign away a minor’s right to sue.

Nonetheless, the existence of a parent’s fundamental right “to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of his or her children,” implies that a parent has authority to act on behalf of a minor child when interacting with third parties. The United States Supreme Court has recognized as much: “Most children, even in adolescence, simply are not able to make sound judgments concerning many decisions, including their need for medical care or treatment. Parents can and must make those judgments. This principle is based on “a presumption that parents possess what a child lacks in maturity, experience, and capacity for judgment required for making life’s difficult decisions.” Furthermore, the law recognizes that “natural bonds of affection lead parents to act in the best interests of their children. The Supreme Court stated in Parham that a parent’s authority to make health-care decisions on behalf of a minor child is limited only in atypical situations, such as if the parent has neglected or abused the child.

(This has been adopted by all states, yet most State Supreme Courts do not believe that a parent has the right to sign away a child’s right to sue. They can provide medical care to the child that might kill them, but they can’t allow them to be injured.)

The court then reviewed all the ways that the state of Minnesota has by statute given parents the right to control the child upbringing. The court then made this statement supporting the right of a parent to sign away the right to sue.

In light of these statutes, and in the absence of any law that either forbids parents from entering into contracts on behalf of their minor children or limits their ability to do so, it is clear that a parent generally has authority, on behalf of a minor child, to enter into an agreement that includes an exculpatory clause.

The next issue was a statute posted after the release was signed would void the release.

Three years after the plaintiff’s mother signed the release, Minnesota enacted Minn. Stat. 184B.20 Inflatable Amusement Equipment. The statute had a specific provision which voided releases signed by a parent for a minor.

Subd. 5. Insurance required; waiver of liability limited.

(b) A waiver of liability signed by or on behalf of a minor for injuries arising out of the negligence of the owner or the owner’s employee or designee is void.

The plaintiff argued that this statute should be used to void a release. However, a basic tenet of the law is “No law shall be construed to be retroactive unless clearly and manifestly so intended by the legislature.” Even if the legislature intends for a law to retroactive it is very rarely upheld as valid. No business could continue if at any time in the future the law could change making the action or business illegal.

The plaintiff then argued the release was void because it was “overly broad and contrary to public policy.” Minnesota law follows the law in most other states on interpreting an overly broad release and public policy issues.

“A clause exonerating a party from liability will be strictly construed against the benefited party.” “If the clause is either ambiguous in scope or purports to release the benefited party from liability for intentional, willful or wanton acts, it will not be enforced.” Id. In addition, an exculpatory clause is unenforceable if it “contravenes public policy.”

Minnesota has a two prongs test to determine if a contract violates public policy.

The test focuses on two factors: “(1) whether there was a disparity of bargaining power between the parties (in terms of a compulsion to sign a contract containing an unacceptable provision and the lack of ability to negotiate elimination of the unacceptable provision)” and “(2) the types of services being offered or provided (taking into consideration whether it is a public or essential service).”

The plaintiff argued the release was a violation of public policy because his mother could not negotiate the release and as such he would not have been permitted to attend the birthday party if she had not signed the release. This argument might work for a real necessity, however in recreation cases it fails because the services can always be obtained elsewhere.

Justice contends that there was a disparity in bargaining power because there was no opportunity for his mother to negotiate the terms of the exculpatory clause and because he would not have been permitted to attend the birthday party if his mother had not signed the form agreement. Justice’s contention is not legally viable. “Even though a contract is on a printed form and offered on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis, those facts alone do not cause it to be an adhesion contract.” More is required. The agreement must relate to a “necessary service,” and there also “must be a showing … that the services could not be obtained elsewhere.”

But the supreme court has recognized that “contracts relating to recreational activities do not fall within any of the categories where the public interest is involved,” on the ground that they are not “services of great importance to the public, which were a practical necessity for some members of the public.”

The release was found to not violate public policy because:

…exculpatory clause is not contrary to public policy because there was no bargaining-power disparity and because Marvel did not provide “an essential or public service.”

The next argument was the scope of the release was too broad because the language tries to stop claims for “intentional, willful or wanton acts.” However, the release itself only referred to claims for negligence. However, this was not enough of a restriction under Minnesota law the court concluded.

Marvel’s exculpatory clause does not make any reference to claims of “ordinary negligence” or simply “negligence.” Rather, it expansively refers to “any and all claims,” which means that it purports to release Marvel from claims arising from its intentional, willful or wanton acts. Thus, Marvel’s exculpatory clause is overly broad.

The court concluded the language of the release was overly broad when it did language in the release purported to release the defendant from more than simple negligence claims. The court then examined whether this issue was enough to void the release.

The court in a prior decision, repeated here found that although the language of the release may purport to cover greater than ordinary negligence, a release under Minnesota law could only release from ordinary negligence. So, no matter what the release said or was interpreted to say, it could not protect from simple negligence claims.

We reasoned that “any term in a contract which attempts to exempt a party from liability for gross negligence or wanton conduct is unenforceable, not the entire contract. ” (emphasis added) (quotation and alteration omitted). In light of Anderson, Marvel’s exculpatory clause is enforceable to the extent that Justice asserts a claim of ordinary negligence, but it is unenforceable to the extent that Justice asserts a claim of greater-than-ordinary negligence.

Overly broad language, concerning the extent of the protection provided by the release, did not void the release.

Finally, the court reviewed the plaintiff’s argument that the post injury release signed by the plaintiff’s parents to settle their claims at the time of the injury was not valid. The plaintiff argued legal technical claims about the signing and validity of the release, which the court rejected.

The district court did not err by granting Marvel’s motion for summary judgment on the ground that Justice’s sole claim of ordinary negligence is barred by the exculpatory clause that his mother signed on his behalf. In light of that conclusion, Justice’s argument that the district court erred by denying his motion to amend the complaint to add a request for punitive damages is moot.

So Now What?

One of the confusing points of this case is why did the amusement industry allow Minn. Stat. 184B.20 Inflatable Amusement Equipment to be passed. It provided no protection for the industry or operators, placed a mandatory insurance requirement and worst voided the use of a release for a minor in one of the few states where a minor can have a parent sign away their rights.

The two other issues, the signing of a release by a parent to stop the claims of a child, which is not moot for inflatable amusement devices, and the concept of a minor suing after his parents have settled a claim, after reaching the age of majority are rare and decided by the court in a manner that upholds the validity of a contract.

If settlement and post injury release signed by the parents had been thrown out, this would create a nightmare of litigation. No one would settle any claim of a minor until the minor reached the age of majority since any settlement might be void. No matter how badly a parent might want to pay medical bills or move on, no insurance company would offer a payment knowing they could be sued later.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Who am I

Jim Moss

I’m an attorney specializing in the legal issues of the Outdoor Recreation Industry

I represent Manufactures, Outfitters, Guides, Reps, College & University’s, Camps, Youth Programs, Adventure Programs and Businesses

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James H. Moss

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