Federal Judge holds that North Carolina law supports a release signed by the mother of a minor plaintiff to stop a lawsuit

Still not a decision by the NC Supreme Court which is controlling on this issue, however a very interesting case and a very staunch support of the idea that a parent can sign away a minor’s right to sue.

Kelly, v. United States of America, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 135289

State: North Carolina, United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, Southern Division

Plaintiff: Morgan Kelly, Pamela Kelly, and Terry Kelly

Defendant: United States of America

Plaintiff Claims: negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2014

A prior decision in this case was written about in North Carolina may allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue for injuries when the minor is engaged in non-profit activities sponsored by schools, volunteers, or community organizations which reviewed Kelly v. United States of America, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 89741.

This is a decision by a federal court. Federal courts do not make decisions changing state law. Federal Courts can only apply state law to the facts in front of them. If the law is not settled it may surmise what the law it, however the courts of the state where the federal court sits, in this case North Carolina, are not bound by the law. Other websites have reported that federal courts can change the effect of the law in a state which is not true. That is why the precautionary warning on this decision. The North Carolina Supreme Court can rule on this issue at some future date and say the opposite of what this decision says. So until the issue of whether a parent can sign away a minor’s right to sue is reviewed by a state appellate or Supreme Court in North Carolina, not is set in stone.

A quick review of the facts: the minor plaintiff, age fifteen, was injured during a confidence course (obstacle course?) while attending a ROTC weekend at United States Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune. The mother of the minor signed a release so the minor could attend the weekend.

There are several new facts which were argued in this phase of the case, and not in the prior decision, which are interesting. Allegedly the release was it was signed, was signed with the parent believing the twin sister was attending the camp. However at the time the release was signed there were no names on the release. The sister did not attend, the plaintiff did and the plaintiff filled in her name on the release. An information packet was sent to all attendee’s high schools which described the confidence course. However neither of the minor’s parents saw the packet.

All aspects of the trip were free for the cadets except they had to pay for their meals at the Camp Lejeune dining facility at a reduced rate and pay for anything the plaintiff purchased at the Post Exchange.

Prior to undertaking the confidence course the minor and other cadets completed two obstacle courses. The actual element the minor was injured on was the “slide for life.” While climbing the slide for life the minor fell suffering injuries.

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

The first issue was whether a parent could sign a release and release the minor’s right to sue. The court found in this decision and in the prior decision a parent could sign away a minor’s right to sue.

It does not appear that North Carolina courts have ruled on whether a liability waiver signed by a parent on behalf of a minor child is enforceable, yet numerous courts in other jurisdictions have upheld pre-injury liability waivers signed by parents on behalf of minors in the context of litigation filed against schools, municipalities, and clubs providing activities for children.

The court then reviewed other state law where the court’s had allowed a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue. The court in reviewing those decisions found them analogous to these facts and applicable to this case.

… the court continues to find that these cases are analogous to the circumstances here, where the facilities and instruction of the NJROTC program were provided at no expense and students were charged only for personal purchases from the Post Exchange and for meals at discount rate.

The court found numerous reasons within those cases why the courts upheld the releases.

… the public is best served when risks or costs of litigation regarding such programs are minimized.

… public interest by respecting the realm of parental authority to weigh the risks and costs of physical injury to their children against the benefits of the child’s participation in an activity.

North Carolina, the law to be applied in this case by the court:

…recognized a public interest in respecting parents’ authority over certain life decisions for their children. North Carolina has recognized a public interest in respecting parents’ authority over certain life decisions for their children.

The court remains persuaded by the analysis of those courts upholding liability waivers signed by parents in the context of litigation against schools, municipalities and clubs, which either implicitly or explicitly found the risk presented by such waivers to be outweighed by interests in providing non-commercial activities and respecting parental authority.

The court also found that this case was not controlled by a public interest argument. The court also found that there was no recognized North Carolina public interest in voiding the release to protect minors over the wishes of the parents. “First, neither the defendant’s status as a government body, nor the volunteer status of a program’s personnel, are controlling factors in the analysis.”

The concluded this analysis and denied a public interest argument in the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA).

In turn, JROTC programs promote the community welfare by instilling the values and benefits noted above in the community’s children. Finally, the mere fact that the United States has waived its sovereign immunity through the FTCA does not mean that it should be denied the use of a waiver that other non-governmental volunteer or non-profit organizations could employ. On the contrary, the FTCA only makes the United States liable “in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances.”

The FTCA is the statute that describes how and for what reasons the federal government, including the military can be sued.

The court then looked at the actual release to see if it met the law of North Carolina to be valid. The plaintiff argued there was no meeting of the minds, a basic requirement for a contract, which a release is. This is also referred to as a “mutual mistake.” “However, a unilateral mistake, unaccompanied by fraud, imposition, undue influence or like circumstances is insufficient to avoid a contract.”

Because the mistake, if any, was only a unilateral mistake, it was not enough to void the release. Unilateral mistake meaning only one part to the contract knew about the problem or was affected by the problem.

The plaintiff then argued that because the release was signed by the mother for one daughter who did not go but used by the second daughter who did go, the plaintiff, the release was void. The court found that even if the release was void for this reason, because the plaintiff’s took advantage of the opportunity, which could not be accepted without a release, they had ratified and affirmed the release.

North Carolina courts have held that, when a release is originally invalid or voidable, it may be ratified and affirmed by subsequent acts accepting the benefits.

Similarly, under the North Carolina theory of quasi-estoppel, also known as “estoppel by benefit,” a party who “accepts a transaction or instrument and then accepts benefits under it may be estopped to take a later position inconsistent with the prior acceptance of that same transaction or instrument.”

The doctrine is grounded “upon a party’s acquiescence or acceptance of payment or benefits, by virtue of which that party is thereafter prevented from maintaining a position inconsistent with those acts.”

Since the opportunities of the weekend could not be accepted or taken without a signed release, the plaintiff could not after accepting the benefits argue the release was void.

Here, the benefits of the Liability Waiver for plaintiff Pamela Kelly consisted of her daughter’s participation in the NJROTC orientation program, with the attendant benefits of introducing her to the culture, skills, and values that the NJROTC seeks to impart.

By accepting the benefit of her child’s attendance at the orientation session, knowing that a liability waiver was required for attendance, plaintiff Pamela Kelly cannot now disavow the effect of the instrument she signed that allowed her child to attend.

The next issue the plaintiff argued was the release did not identify the risks in the release. “As an alternative ground for denying summary judgment, plaintiffs argue that the Liability Waiver cannot be enforced because the government did not identify the risks that the form covered.”

The plaintiff’s argued they did not know their daughter would be engaging in the risky behavior and activities that caused her injury.

Consequently, they state they anticipated that plaintiff Morgan Kelly would only be visiting Camp Lejeune to observe equipment and other military activities, and that she would only be performing the same activities that she had performed in the past, such as marching in formations, drills, and “ground-based physical fitness training.

The court found this was not required under the law. Here the contract language was clear and the intention of the release for one party to waive the negligence and any accompanying risks of the other party was evident.

The heart of a contract is the intention of the parties,” which “must be determined from the language of the contract, the purposes of the contract, the subject matter and the situation of the parties at the time the contract is executed.” Liability waivers are disfavored under North Carolina law, and strictly construed against the parties seeking to enforce them. However, when the language is clear and unambiguous, construction of the agreement is a matter of law for the court, and the court cannot look beyond the terms of the contract to determine the parties’ intent.

The language was clear and unambiguous in its intent.

As such, the waiver provides ample notice to plaintiffs of the potential for a wide range of activities at the event, not limited in any way to marching, drills, or “ground-based physical fitness training.” Plaintiffs do not allege that they were affirmatively misled as to the nature of the activities that would comprise the event, or that they were prevented from inquiring into the activities or the associated risks.

The next argument was the plaintiff had disaffirmed the release by filing the complaint. “Plaintiffs also argue that summary judgment should be denied because plaintiff Morgan Kelly has disaffirmed it (by filing complaint) and because the Liability.” They buttressed this argument stating the language in the release referred to the plaintiff not a parent. However the court found the plaintiff’s had not provided any legal authority to support their argument.

Yet plaintiffs have not cited any case holding that a form such as that used here, which expressly waives both the claims of the child and her guardians, and which is signed by one of those guardians, cannot be enforced against the guardian who signed it. The court again holds that the Liability Waiver is enforceable to bar the claims of both Morgan and Pamela Kelly.

The next issue was whether the release, signed by the mother and effective against the claims of the mother and daughter also prohibited claims of the father.

The question remains whether the Liability Waiver is effective against the claims of plaintiff Terry Kelly, who did not sign the document, and denies ever seeing it prior to plaintiff Morgan Kelly’s orientation visit.

The court reasoned the release could not be used against the father if he did not know of the release. If you do not know of the contract you cannot be held to the contract even under a quasi-estoppel theory argued earlier in the case.

However the plaintiff’s themselves destroyed this argument. The release had both names of the parents written in by hand. The father in his deposition did not definitively state that the handwriting was not his. The plaintiff’s also argued the thought the release was not an original (which is not a valid evidentiary argument). The court then ordered the plaintiff’s had additional time to visually inspect the document and determine if it was the one they signed.

No additional arguments or support for the argument was made that the release was not the original or not signed by the parents. The court, then found that claim was no longer valid because it did not create a genuine issue concerning the release which is necessary to deny a motion for summary judgment.

Plaintiffs had opportunity to review the original Release Form, and to have it assessed by an expert if deemed necessary. An opponent of summary judgment “must produce more than frivolous assertions, unsupported statements, illusory issues and mere suspicions.”

The court then went back to the quasi-estoppel claim to further foreclose that argument by the plaintiff: “… because the record shows that plaintiff Terry Kelly accepted the benefits of the Release Form as it applied to the orientation visit.” The court further stated:”[A] party will not be allowed to accept benefits which arise from certain terms of a contract and at the same time deny the effect of other terms of the same agreement

The court summed up that argument by stating:

The same principle operates here, where plaintiff Terry Kelly signed a Release Form surrendering claims related to his daughter’s participation in NJROTC training, then allowed his daughter to attend a NJROTC training orientation visit. On the evidence, there is no genuine issue that plaintiff Terry Kelly accepted that plaintiff Morgan Kelly’s “membership in the Naval Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps training,” included the orientation visit. In consideration of this training, including the orientation visit, he released “claims, demands, actions, or causes of action, due to . . . injury.” De-fendant reasonably relied on plaintiff Terry Kelly’s writing, in addition to his acquiescence to his [*35]  daughter’s attendance at the orientation visit. Plaintiff Terry Kelly cannot be allowed to accept the benefits of the Release Form through his daughter’s attendance, while at the same time denying the release that was required as a condition of that attendance.

That eliminated the last claim and argument by the plaintiff and summary judgement was granted.

So Now What?

Although this decision may not be controlling in North Carolina until the North Carolina state courts rule on it, the court effectively argued each point why the release should be valid. On top of that, I do not know if this case is being appealed, which again, may change the outcome.

One point that was argued that I continually argue to do, to save the time and cost of defending a release is to put in the release the risks the plaintiff will be assuming. If the release is thrown out of court, you can get the release in front of the jury to prove the plaintiff assumed the risk of the injury.

This is great legal reasoning on release law. This is a good case to keep handy when you are arguing why a release is valid. Whether your state allows a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue or not, the legal analysis used here can be used in many different release cases.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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