The Iowa Supreme Court reaffirms a Permission Slip is not a release, but leaves open the argument that releases may stop a minor’s claim for negligence.

City Parks Department sued for injuries of an eight-year-old girl hit by a flying bat at a baseball game field trip.

Sweeney v. City of Bettendorf, 762 N.W.2d 873; 2009 Iowa Sup. LEXIS 26

State: Supreme Court of Iowa

Plaintiff: Tara Sweeney, Individually, and by Cynthia Sweeney, Her Mother and Next Friend

Defendant: City of Bettendorf and Bettendorf Parks and Recreation

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release (Permission Slip), No duty owed,

Holding: Split, the permission slip was not a release however there triable issues to the defense of duty owed

Year: 2009

The city recreation department would take kids on field trips to see minor-league baseball games in other cities. The plaintiff was an eight-year-old girl who loved baseball and her mother. The minor went on several of these field trips in the past. Her mother signed the permission slip and she went off on the trip.

In the past, the participants had sat behind home plate which was protected by netting from flying objects. This time the kids were taken to bleachers along the third baseline. They were told they had to sit there and could not move.

During the game, a player lost his grip on the bat which sailed down the third baseline hitting the girl. The minor had turned to talk to her friend when she was struck. No adults were around at the time.

The plaintiffs sued for negligent. The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment citing a permission slip the mother had signed as a release and that the plaintiff had not shown a breach of duty owed to the injured minor.

The plaintiff’s opposed the motion for summary judgment arguing:

The plaintiffs further argued that even if the permission slip amounted to a valid release, it was fatally flawed because it purported to release only the Department and not the City. Finally, plaintiffs asserted even if the permission slip amounted to an anticipatory release of future claims based on acts or omissions of negligence, statutory and common law public policy prevents a parent from waiving such claims on behalf of a minor child.

The trial court granted the motion for summary judgment based on the permission slip no evidence of a breach of duty. The plaintiff’s appealed.

Summary of the case

The court reviewed several procedural issues and then looked into releases under Iowa law. The court found the permission slip was deficient in many ways.

…the permission slip contains no clear and unequivocal language that would notify a casual reader that by signing the document, a parent would be waiving all claims relating to future acts or omissions of negligence by the City. The language at issue here refers only to “accidents” generally and contains nothing specifically indicating that a parent would be waiving potential claims for the City’s negligence.

Based on the language in the permission slip the court found it could not enforce the release because it was not a release.

Next the court looked at whether being hit by a bat at a baseball game was an inherent risk of being a spectator at a baseball game. In Iowa this is called the inherent risk doctrine. (This doctrine is very similar to a secondary assumption of risk argument.) What created a difference in this issue, is the issue of whether a flying bat is an inherent risk, is a defense of the baseball team/promoter/owner or field rather than a city recreation department field trip.

In the majority of cases, spectators sitting outside protective netting at baseball stadiums have been unable to recover from owners or operators for injuries related to errant bats and balls on the ground that such injuries were an “inherent risk” of attending the game.

Regardless of whether the approach is characterized as involving inherent risk or a limited duty, courts applying the doctrine have held that the owner or operator of a baseball stadium is not liable for injury to spectators from flying bats and balls if the owner or operator provided screened seating sufficient for spectators who may be reasonably anticipated to desire such protection and if the most dangerous areas of the stands, ordinarily the area behind home plate, were so protected.

Because the inherent risk was not one of a field trip, the court found differently than if the defense was argued by the owner of the field. The issue was not one of attending a sporting event invited by the event, but supervision of a minor child by a recreation department.

A negligent supervision case is fundamentally different than a case involving premises liability. The eight-year-old child in this case made no choice, but instead sat where she was told by the Department. The plaintiffs further claim that there was inadequate adult supervision where the child was seated. The alleged negligence in this case does not relate to the instrumentality of the injury, but instead focuses on the proper care and supervision of children in an admittedly risky environment.

As a negligent supervision case, the recreation department owed a different type and a higher degree of care to the minor.

Viewed as a negligent supervision case, the City had a duty to act reasonably, under all the facts and circumstances, to protect the children’s safety at the ball park. The gist of the plaintiffs’ claim is that a substantial cause of the injury was the supervisors’ decision to allow the children, who cannot be expected to be vigilant at all times during a baseball game, to be seated in what a jury could conclude was an unreasonably hazardous location behind third base instead of behind the safety of protective netting.

Add to this the change in sitting and the restrictions the adults placed on where the minors could sit and the court found there was a clear issue as to liability.

The third issue reviewed by the court was whether the recreation department failed to provide an adequate level of care to the minor. Here the court agreed with the recreation department. Not because the level of care was sufficient, but because the plaintiff could not prove the level of care was inadequate.

There was a dissent in this case, which argued that the risk of being hit by a bat was an inherent risk of attending a baseball game and that the permission slip was a valid release.

The case was then sent back for trial on the negligence claims of the plaintiff.

So Now What?

What is of interest is the single sentence that argues a release signed by an adult stops the claims of a minor. It was argued by the plaintiff’s as one of the ways the permission slip was invalid. However, the court did not look at the issue in its review and decision in the case.

The court’s review was quite clear on releases. If you do not have the proper language in your release, you are only killing trees. It was a stretch, and a good one, by the recreation department to argue that a document intended to prove the minor could be on a field trip was also a release of claims.

Releases are different legal documents and require specific language.

You also need to remember that defenses that are available to a lawsuit are not just based on the activity, like baseball, but the relationship of the parties to the activity. If the minor child had attended the baseball game on her own or with her parents, the Iowa Inherent Risk Doctrine would have probably prevented a recovery. However, because the duty owed was not from a baseball game to a spectator, but from a recreation department to a minor in its care, the inherent risk defense was not available.


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