Releases: Using it Properly

Seven-Part Program to Build a Release to Defend your Business/Program/Activity

Releases are also known as “waivers” or “covenants not to sue.” They are also called “allocation of risk” or “transference of risk” documents. Whatever the name, they are an agreement between two parties as to who will assume the cost of injury prior to the injury.

Another type of document called an “Assumption of Risk” document does not provide the complete extent of legal defenses a release provides. However, in states that do not allow the use of a release, or if you are dealing with minors, an assumption of the risk agreement is your best defense. You need to know the difference, know when to use which one and when to combine the two.

A properly written release, which includes assumption of the risk language, used in conjunction with a well-thought-out marketing plan, and post-accident follow-up can stop lawsuits. Your release or waiver is not the only document you need to build a wall of protection around your business or educational program, but it is the most important. The other two are a legal entity protecting your business like an LLC and insurance.

Why include “marketing plan” in a risk-management memo? Because:

Releases will be different for the type of business you run. An outfitter, a business where guides accompany the trip, will have a different release from a livery or canoe rental business where a canoe or equipment is rented for the day. Activities where parents accompany children and maintain control and supervision over children will be different from either an outfitter or a livery release. Some releases may be simple notices of those risks which the participants need to be aware of and those campground rules which are designed to prevent injuries.

Your release will also be different based on the activity, the state where the release will be used, the age of your participants and the risks you want them to assume. No release, if it is to be effective, is going to be like any other release.

You need to understand what type of operation you have, not only from your perspective, but also from your participant’s point of view. What you see as normal or fun may scare your participants. Always look at your world through their eyes.

Releases for product liability issues are a different type of release entirely.

First Line of Defense

The first document your client reads or sees should start the process of preparing the client for the risk, and the fact that he or she will be assuming the risk of the activity. Most times this will be your brochure, marketing letter course catalog or website. Emphasize in these that your company uses a release, and that customers must sign the release before they can participate in an activity or trip. You might want to state there is the possibility that guests can be injured or die during the trip, and that you are not responsible for their injuries or their lost or destroyed personal property. This opening information is the first brick in your wall of protection.

You don’t want an injured guest suing you stating that if they knew about the risk and the release, they would not have gone on the trip or attended your activity.

Second Line of Defense

The next step is to ensure that the release is given to your customers as soon as possible. This may not be possible with walk-in business. However, you should always make the attempt. Put your release on your website so your guests can review it if they go to your website.

Make sure your release and the other documents you use, do not create a conflict or a lawsuit. Do not make promises you cannot keep about the safety of the trip or activity. Doing so can make your release a worthless piece of paper. This can happen if you do not answer questions about your release, or you answer the questions incorrectly. Your staff should also be trained to answer questions correctly and adequately represent the risks involved.

If your release is for a product being purchased, then the release should be given to the customer as you are preparing the product for sale. Give the customer plenty of time to read the release and ask any questions. Placing your release on your website in advance so they can read it, then eliminates the argument, the signor did not have enough time to read and understand the release.’

If you can’t provide the release to a purchaser of your product in advance, then provide an incentive for them to sign the release after they purchase the product. Extend the warranty or send them something that qualifies as consideration to provide value for signing the agreement.

Defense Three: Train your staff in your release

Tell your staff to hand the release to the client with the front up. Ask them to read both sides of the agreement and sign and complete the backside.

If a guest asks if the release is valid, say yes. Tell them the release is significant in keeping your costs down by keeping your insurance at a reasonable amount. A release identifies who is going to pay for any injuries or damages in advance so you do not have to spend time and money litigating this issue later.

Defense Four: Assumption of the Risk

Every release should outline the risk associated with that particular activity. Saying something is dangerous is not enough. You need to specify many of the actual risks for the activity. Remember most of the customers interested in your trip or activities are excited because they have never participated in a trip like yours. As such they may also have no idea what the risks of the activity. They may want to compare your activity to the last thrilling experience they had, an amusement park. You need to explain those risks to them. Many companies do this in a “safety talk.” Educational institutions do this at pre-trip meetings or briefings. Trying to impress a jury with what was said in a meeting or on the side of a river can be daunting. Your release can help prove your clients knew and understood the risk they were about to undertake.

Rental agreements can be interpreted several different ways by the courts. If you believe you are running a pure rental operation, your documents can be significantly different from a rental operation the courts consider an outfitter. Review your operation with your attorney to make sure your attorney understands your business and which interpretation the courts will apply.

Assumption of Risk – Defense Five and Your First Step Your Risk-Management Program

If you have the opportunity to use a release, then the following information will be included in your release and incorporate the risks of the activity to be assumed by your guest. If you do not have the opportunity to use a release because of state law, then you will be using an assumption of risk document.

Assumption of Risk is a legal defense that can be used to win a lawsuit or substantially reduce the damages of a lawsuit. It may also be the only line of defense with minors. As such Assumption or Acknowledgment of the Risk (ASSUMPTION OF THE RISK) plays an important role in your business.

The legal effect and how an assumption of the risk and Contributor Negligence is used in the Courtroom are substantially different. However, from a non-lawyer perspective, there is little difference between the doctrines.

Contributory Negligence is an argument based upon the facts at trial where the jury decides if the Plaintiff’s or injured parties actions contributed to his injuries. If the Plaintiff knew about the risks and still acted or refused to act causing his injuries, he contributed to his injuries, and his damages are reduced by his percentage of his contribution to his injury. Assumption of Risk is used here because the idea is well defined by the words. In addition, when your clients truly know and understand the risk, they are less likely to be injured, let alone start a lawsuit.

Assumption of Risk must be proved by you to win a lawsuit. You will need to prove that your client knew and understood the risk they were about to undertake. Not only must they know which things were dangerous; they needed to know how dangerous. For example, most people know traveling to third-world countries may be dangerous. However, do most Americans really understand you can die from what Americans would consider a minor illness or injury. Medical care in Third-World countries can be substandard to the care someone would receive in America. Consequently, this two-step knowledge can be difficult to prove in some instances. It requires an affirmative set of actions to move this knowledge and understanding to the level necessary to win a lawsuit.

Most of us identify the obvious risk of a sport. Water activities we identify drowning, rock climbing we understand falling, and winter camping, freezing. However, a substantial amount of the injuries’ Outdoor Recreation arise away from the main activity. Side hikes while rafting are the major cause of injuries in the Grand Canyon. A large percentage of the injuries in rock climbing occur when items fall on the climber, or they fall hiking to the climb. Study the injuries you clients receive and make sure the most common, no matter how trivial, are listed in your assumption of risk document or release, as well as the most horrendous.

The easiest way to prove your clients knew and understood the risk is to put that information in writing and have your clients acknowledge they read those risks in the document. Some states require the information concerning the risk to be a component of a release. As such, your release should always contain language outlining the risks of the activity. Judges frequently comment on the fact the injury sustained by the Plaintiff was specifically identified in the release or assumption of risk document.

Remember that any document or video your clients read or view can be used to prove they understood the risks. Your release, promotional information, pictures in the office or videos are important. To prove the clients knew and accepted the risk several companies or industries have developed videos to show to clients before they undertake the activity. A video has proven to be extremely important in preventing possible lawsuits. It is difficult to sue, when the actions that injured the Plaintiff were identified visually and audibly as something not to do. Add to that the release identified the risk and stated the client had seen the video. This is a fairly iron clad wall against an invasion by injured customers. To see examples of these, OARS the whitewater rafting and adventure travel company, has a complete set of videos on the risks of rafting at: http://rec-law.us/NvHtqu

Defense Six: Understand the Risk from Your Client’s Perspective

To prepare your clients for the risk, you need to evaluate the risk in advance. Do this from your client’s perspective, not from your own. Gather information on what the actual risks of the activity are. Ask your insurance company for a list of the claims they have had over the past several years. Look at the accidents you have had over the life of your company, and that may be peculiar to your operation, where you are operating, or your clients. Finally, always include the worst-case scenario in your release, even if that chance is remote such as paralysis, death, mental anguish, or trauma.

You will be able to explain the risks to them, so they understand, not just what you believe are the risks.

Because assumption of risk is a personal question to be examined by the judge and jury, you need to make the knowledge personal. Use the examples included here as a starting point to build a risk statement for your operation.

Defense 7: The Wall is up, Don’t Tear it Down.

Your wall of defense consists of multiple blocks that inform your guests of the risks they are going to undertake and who will pay for any injury they may encounter. The final Defense in your defense wall is how you deal with your guests after they have been injured. If you have done a good job of informing your guests of the risks, then they should be mentally prepared to accept the fact the injury was probably their fault and their responsibility. However, right after an injury is not the time to bring that up.

You want to treat an injured guest the same way you treated them before their injury. Nothing has changed. They are still a guest who can pay your more money for another trip or send you referrals with their good word. Treat them the way you treat everyone. Be attentive, help them and their family. Follow up and remain their friend.

Moss Maxims: Ideas to Remember when dealing with Guests

10 Signs of Great Risk Management    http://rec-law.us/sUzpHT

7 Mistakes Made by People who are called Defendant    http://rec-law.us/stli09

Crisis Response    http://rec-law.us/ul6Nrl

Reasons Why People Sue    http://rec-law.us/uZ5RKR

Ten Commandments of Dealing with People in a Crisis    http://rec-law.us/KoI8Xo

Additional Articles on Why People Sue

It’s Not Money    http://rec-law.us/zxmmqy

Serious Disconnect: Why people sue.    http://rec-law.us/wm2cBn

Why do people sue? Not for the money.    http://rec-law.us/A0866T

A Church wants to apologize and the insurance company for the church panics. What else would you expect a church to do?    http://rec-law.us/zI0FUI

Great article on why some corporate apologies fall short and they are not sincere    http://rec-law.us/xb1uVb

Her life is permanently changed, but she really wants an apology    http://rec-law.us/yHjVn0

Make sure you understand what the other side is saying    http://rec-law.us/1b5m1mt


PA Supreme Court determines colleges owe a duty to provide medical care to student-athletes and releases are valid for stopping claims by student athletes.

Court also sets forth requirements for a release to be valid under Pennsylvania law.

Feleccia v. Lackawanna Coll., 215 A.3d 3, 2019 Pa. LEXIS 4615

State: Pennsylvania, Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

Plaintiffs: , Augustus Feleccia and Justin T. Resch

Defendant: Lackawanna College a/k/a Lackawanna Junior College, AD Mecca, Coach Duda, Coach Reiss, Coach Lamagna and Coyne and Bonisese

Plaintiff Claims: negligence, including negligence per se. The complaint also sought punitive damages, alleging appellants acted “willfully, wantonly and/or recklessly

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Plaintiff’s

Year: 2017

Summary

In this decision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reviews requirements for how a release must be written in Pennsylvania law to be valid. Pennsylvania has no definition of gross negligence, but a release is still not valid to stop a gross negligence claim.

Finally, if you create a duty or make a promise that people rely on to their detriment or injury you are liable. Here a college is liable to its student-athletes who were injured during practice for not having certified athlete trainers on the field.

Facts

Lackawanna had customarily employed two athletic trainers to support the football program.1 However, both athletic trainers resigned in the summer of 2009 and AD Mecca advertised two job openings for the position of athletic trainer. AD Mecca received applications from Coyne and Bonisese, recent graduates of Marywood University who had obtained Bachelor of Science degrees in Athletic Training. AD Mecca conducted telephone interviews with Coyne and Bonisese for the open athletic trainer positions at Lackawanna.

At the time she applied and interviewed for the Lackawanna position, Coyne had not yet passed the athletic trainer certification exam, which she took for the first time on July 25, 2009, and was therefore not licensed by the Board. Bonisese was also not licensed, having failed the exam on her first attempt, and still awaiting the results of her second attempt when she applied and interviewed for the Lackawanna position. Nevertheless, Lackawanna hired both Coyne and Bonisese in August 2009 with the expectation they would serve as athletic trainers, pending receipt of their exam results, and both women signed “athletic trainer” job descriptions. Id. After starting their employment at Lackawanna, Coyne and Bonisese both learned they did not pass the athletic trainer certification exam. Coyne informed AD Mecca of her test results, and AD Mecca also learned Bonisese had failed her second attempt at certification.

AD Mecca retitled the positions held by Coyne and Bonisese from “athletic trainers” to “first responders.” Id. at 1204. AD Mecca notified Coyne and Bonisese via email and written correspondence that due to their failure to pass the certification exam, they would function as “first responders” instead of “athletic trainers.” However, neither Coyne nor Bonisese executed [*7] new job descriptions, despite never achieving the credentials included in the athletic trainer job descriptions they did sign. Appellants were also aware the qualifications of their new hires was called into question by their college professors and clinic supervisors. See Id. More specifically, Shelby Yeager, a professor for Coyne and Bonisese during their undergraduate studies, communicated to AD Mecca her opinion that Coyne and Bonisese were impermissibly providing athletic training services in September 2009. Professor Yeager was aware Lackawanna did not have any full-time athletic trainers on staff2 and noted Coyne and Bonisese, as recent graduates, were inexperienced and did not have the required Board license. Professor Yeager stated that Coyne in particular was “ill-equipped to handle the rigors of a contact sport (like football) as an athletic trainer on her own regardless of whether she managed to pass [the certification] exam and obtain her state license.” Id., quoting Affidavit of Shelby Yeager. With regard to Bonisese, Bryan Laurie, who supervised her as a student, rated her performance as “below average/poor” and provided his assessment that she was not qualified to act as an athletic trainer in March of 2010. Id., citing Affidavit of Bryan Laurie.

Appellee Resch started playing football at the age of six, and continued playing through high school. Id. at 1204-05. Upon graduating from high school in 2008, Resch was accepted at Lackawanna and, hoping to continue playing football, met with Coach Duda prior to arriving for classes. Resch tried out for the Lackawanna football team in the fall of 2008. Resch not only failed to make the roster, but was also placed on academic probation, so he was ineligible to play football in the spring of 2009.

Appellee Feleccia also began playing football as a child at the age of ten, and played through high school. Feleccia was recruited by Coach Duda to play football at Lackawanna. See id. Feleccia did not make the team in the fall of 2008, but practiced with them during that time. During a scrimmage in the fall of 2008, Feleccia tore the labrum in his left shoulder, which was surgically repaired. Feleccia was also placed on academic probation after the fall 2008 semester and temporarily withdrew from Lackawanna. See id.

In mid-January 2010, Resch and Feleccia returned to Lackawanna for the spring semester with the aspiration to make the football team. Id. Lackawanna required appellees to fill out and sign various documents in a “participation packet” before playing with the team, including a “Waiver of Liability and Hold Harmless Agreement” (the Waiver) and a form including an “Information/Emergency Release Consent” (the Consent).

On March 29, 2010, appellees participated in the first day of spring contact football practice. The team engaged in a variation of the tackling drill known as the “Oklahoma Drill.” Appellees had previously participated in the Oklahoma Drill, or a variation of it, either in high school or at Lackawanna football practices, and were aware the drill would take place during practices. While participating in the drill, both Resch and Feleccia suffered injuries. Resch attempted to make a tackle and suffered a T-7 vertebral fracture. Resch was unable to get up off the ground and Coyne attended to him before he was transported to the hospital in an ambulance. See Feleccia, 156 A.3d at 1207. Notwithstanding Resch’s injury, the Lackawanna football team continued practicing and running the Oklahoma Drill. Later that same day, Feleccia was injured while attempting to make his first tackle, experiencing a “stinger” in his right shoulder, i.e., experiencing numbness, tingling and a loss of mobility in his right shoulder. Id. Bonisese attended Feleccia and cleared him to continue practice “if he was feeling better.” Id. Feleccia returned to practice and then suffered a traumatic brachial plexus avulsion while making a tackle with his right shoulder. Id.

The plaintiff’s claims were dismissed based by the trial court on a motion for summary judgment filed by the defendants. The Plaintiff’s then appealed that dismissal of their complaint to the Pennsylvania Superior Court (intermediate appellate court). The Pennsylvania Superior Court reversed the trial court on several issues. The defendants then filed this appeal with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

The appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was based on two issues.

a. Is a Pennsylvania college required to have qualified medical personnel present at intercollegiate athletic events to satisfy a duty of care to the college’s student-athletes?

b. Is an exculpatory clause releasing “any and all liability” signed in connection with participation in intercollegiate football enforceable as to negligence?

That means the decision of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will only look at the two issues it has decided that need to be reviewed by the Supreme Court and nothing else.

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

What is interesting are two things.

First, the court allowed a release to be used by a college to prevent lawsuits when a student is injured during practice for an NCAA sport. The analysis did not center around the relationship between the student athlete and the university; it centered around the fact the University had told student athletes they would have trainers and did not.

Sort of a detrimental reliance claim: I relied upon your statements that then injured me. Or as stated in the Restatement (Second) of Torts §323

One who undertakes, gratuitously or for consideration, to render services to another which he should recognize as necessary for the protection of the other’s person or things, is subject to liability to the other for physical harm resulting from his failure to exercise reasonable care to perform his undertaking, if

(a) his failure to exercise such care increases the risk of such harm, or

(b) the harm is suffered because of the other’s reliance upon the undertaking.

The court found the College had created an expectation, relied upon by the students, that there would be athletic trainers available on the field during practice. Because the two trainers on the field were not certified, and possibly, to some extent, the actions of the school in changing the requirements or the people on the field to help the athletes from trainers to medical responders, the court found a legal theory where the college could be liable.

The second issue is the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s interpretation of Pennsylvania release law. Under Pennsylvania law “Accordingly, exculpatory contracts are valid and enforceable only when “certain criteria are met.” To meet that criteria the court restated four requirements under Pennsylvania law for a release to be valid.

(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).

The first issue the court reviewed in determining if the release was valid was the lack of the word negligence in the release. If the release failed to specifically state the release stopped claims for the defendants negligence was it enforceable. The court said the release was valid even if it did not include the word negligence in its wording. To be valid the release must spell “…out the intention of the parties with particularity” and show “the intent to release [appellants] from liability by express stipulation.”

That means the court must review the party’s intentions in creating the agreement between them. Furthermore, the injuries suffered by the plaintiff must be encompassed within the terms of the release. That does not mean a specific list of injuries, just a general idea that the injury suffered was within the contemplation of the release.

The court then looked at ordinary negligence and gross negligence under Pennsylvania law. The court first stated there is a difference between ordinary, gross and reckless conduct or negligence.

However, the court avoided the issue of defining gross negligence or the issue of whether gross negligence was valid in this claim. The court stated, “([A]s gross negligence is not implicated in the instant matter, we leave for another day the question of whether a release for gross negligence can withstand a public policy challenge.”

The court then looked at how both parties in their briefs defined the actions of the defendant college. The court then reviewed public policy requirements to void a release under Pennsylvania law.

A determination that a contract is unenforceable because it contravenes public policy “requires a showing of overriding public policy from legal precedents, governmental practice, or obvious ethical or moral standards. “It is only when a given policy is so obviously for or against the public health, safety, morals or welfare that there is a virtual unanimity of opinion in regard to it, that a court may constitute itself the voice of the community in so declaring. . . .”

However, the court then stated that pre-injury contracts, releases, are unenforceable when the liability of the defendant arises from recklessness. So the court refused to define gross negligence and used an old definition of recklessness. The Court then held that recklessness, not necessarily defined in a definition of negligence, could void a release.

Again, the Court repeated that Pennsylvania had not defined gross negligence in a civil liability setting.

Thus, although we have not previously settled on a definitive meaning of the term “gross negligence” as compared to “ordinary negligence” in the civil context, we have recognized there is a difference between the two concepts, and they are distinguished by the degree of deviation from the standard of care.

The court did then define gross negligence but did so in a way that did not set the definition in stone under Pennsylvania law. It just pulled definitions of gross negligence from lower courts and did not adopt any of them as the definition.

…in essence, gross negligence is merely negligence with a vituperative epithet. It constitutes conduct more egregious than ordinary negligence but does not rise to the level of intentional indifference to the consequences of one’s acts. It may also be deemed to be a lack of slight diligence or care comprising a conscious, voluntary act or omission in reckless disregard of a legal duty and the consequences to another party. The term has also been found to mean a form of negligence where the facts support substantially more than ordinary carelessness, inadvertence, laxity, or indifference. The behavior of the defendant must be flagrant, grossly deviating from the ordinary standard of care.

Gross negligence has thus been consistently recognized as involving something more than ordinary negligence, and is generally described as “want of even scant care” and an “extreme departure” from ordinary care.

As we have seen, gross negligence does not rise to the level of the intentional indifference or “conscious disregard” of risks that defines recklessness, but it is defined as an “extreme departure” from the standard of care, beyond that required to establish ordinary negligence, and is the failure to exercise even “scant care.

The court then repeated that the release would not stop a claim for gross negligence.

Moreover, although the Waiver bars’ recovery for appellees’ damages arising from ordinary negligence, we hold the Waiver does not bar recovery for damages arising from gross negligence or recklessness, and there remain factual questions regarding whether appellants’ conduct constituted gross negligence or recklessness.

Pennsylvania joins the list of states that a release will not stop a claim for gross negligence. A gross negligence claim must be decided by the trier of fact, the jury, in these cases.

So Now What?

First, we have definitive guidelines from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on how the court wants a release to be written. Second, we know that Pennsylvania joins the majority of states where a release cannot stop a claim for gross negligence.

We also know that recklessness is enough to void a release as well as gross negligence. However, terms we will result in battles by both sides to use the definitions they want applied to the facts of each particular case.

Finally, as in most states, if you make a promise to someone, and they rely on that promise to their detriment, you are going to write a check!

It is an interesting opinion purely from the allowance of the student-athletes to sue their college. However, the reasoning behind how a release must be written in Pennsylvania has great value.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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

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