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