What the term “strictly construed” actually means when used to describe how a release will be viewed by the court.Posted: July 9, 2018
The decision involves several legal issues, the one that concerns us is the issue of a release for a product. In Kansas, releases are strictly construed. In this case that meant that the language of the release did not meet the requirements of state law for a release. However, the court stretched incredibly far to come to that conclusion.
State: Kansas, United States District Court for the District of Kansas
Plaintiff: Patricia Fee
Defendant: Steve Snyder Enterprises, Inc.; Russell Young; SSE, Incorporated; Greene County Sport Parachute Center of Wellsville, Kansas, Inc.; and John Doe Corporation
Plaintiff Claims: Wrongful death and survival claims based on negligence, product liability and breach of warranty
Defendant Defenses: Statute of Limitations ran,
Holding: for the plaintiff
The lawsuit was brought over the failure of an automatic opener, which did not during a sky dive. The widow sued the manufacture of the device and the sky-diving center who sold the device to the deceased. The deceased signed a release and indemnity agreement, two separate documents when purchasing the automatic opener.
In Kansas, releases are allowed but strictly construed. Here strict construction is used, improperly, to interpret the release in an extremely narrow way to allow the lawsuit to proceed.
The deceased died when he was sky diving, and his automatic opening device failed to open. The automatic opening device was manufactured by the defendant.
The plaintiff spent eight years attempting to serve the defendant, starting in 1977 and finally serving the defendant in 1985. This lead to a discussion about when the lawsuit actually started, which takes the first half of the decision. Because the defendant had avoided service of process, because he knew about it and made attempts not to get sued, the date of the lawsuit started was the date he was served. However, due to the defendant’s actions, the statute of limitations did not run.
The widow purchased the automatic opener for the deceased, although the dates in the decision must be incorrect. The decision states the device was purchased a year after the deceased died. The device failed the first time it was used by the decedent.
The deceased signed a release for the parachute center. The defendant manufacturer raised the release as a defense to the claims of the plaintiff against the manufacture as well as those claims against the dive center.
The release was on one side of the paper and on the reverse was an assumption of risk language. The deceased also signed a separate indemnify agreement. The decedent signed both agreements.
This decision is that of the Federal District Court in Kansas.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The court first looked at release law in Kansas. If not against public policy, then Kansas recognizes exculpatory agreements, releases. However, like many state’s releases, the courts in Kansas use the language that releases “are not favored by the law and are strictly construed against the party relying on them.” Strictly construed does not require the specific term negligence but must clearly appear to express the intent to release from liability the defendant.
It is not necessary; however, that the agreement contained specific or express language covering in so many words the party’s negligence, if the intention to exculpate the party from liability clearly ap-pears from the contract, the surrounding circumstances and the purposes and objects of the parties.
The court in reading the release found it did not stop the plaintiff’s claims.
The court first in looking at the language found the language covered use of the product but did not cover liability for “sale” of the product.
First, a review of the agreement itself shows that, although it specifically releases the Parachute Center from liability for injuries or death arising out of the “ownership, operation, use, maintenance or control” of many devices,” the agreement fails to mention any release of liability revolving around the sale of any product to the parachuter.
The court admitted the deceased understood that parachuting was dangerous, that was not enough. By making the determination that the product was defective when sold, the court found the release would not stand because you cannot release liability for selling a defective product.
Strictly construing the agreement; however, we do not believe that this should be interpreted to exempt the Parachute Center from a failure to use due care in furnishing safe equipment, or should allow it to sell a product in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the parachuter. To do so would impermissibly extend the terms of the agreement to situations not plainly within its language.
The court then determined the release would also not work to stop the plaintiff’s claims for breach of either express or implied warranty. The court found attempting to release the defendant parachute center from liability was unconscionable. Under Kansas law, a release could be used to stop warranty claims, unless that was found to be unconscionable.
We, therefore, hold that plaintiff’s action is not barred by the release, covenant not to sue and indemnity clause signed by the plaintiff’s decedent. Summary judgment in favor of the defendants Parachute Center and Russell Young is therefore, inappropriate.
The indemnification agreement seemed to be ignored in reaching this determination by the court.
So Now What?
Strict construction is a term that gives leeway to a court to review the language of the release to make sure it conforms to the language required under state law. However, that term was created and applied to release’s decades ago and rarely used now except in rare situations like this. When the judge wants the defendant to pay.
Probably the term was created when courts were first asked to apply releases to a plaintiff’s claims and wanted a way to soften the blow. Now days, in most states it is quoted in the decision at the beginning and never heard of again. Eventually if the courts review enough releases, the term is not even quoted.
Few states allow a release to be used to stop product liability claims. However, several states do and several states allow assumption of risk to stop product liability claims. A well-written release that incorporates assumption of risk language is still effective in many product liability cases.
Here, however, the court reached as far as it could to find that the release was barred from stopping the claims. Part of that desire to allow the suit to proceed was probably because of the actions of the manufacturer who spend eight years avoiding service of the lawsuit.
The rest, however, was simply a stretch to allow the lawsuit to proceed.
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Patricia Fee, Plaintiff, v. Steve Snyder Enterprises, Inc.; Russell Young; SSE, Incorporated; Greene County Sport Parachute Center of Wellsville, Kansas, Inc.; and John Doe Corporation, Defendants
CIVIL ACTION No. 84-2323
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF KANSAS
1986 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 28158
March 14, 1986
CORE TERMS: parachute, sport, summary judgment, decedent, personally, covenant, implied warranties, statute of limitations, service of process, mail service, notice, mail, parachuting, personal injury, personal service, parachuter, consumer, assigns, wrongful death, strict liability, territorial limits, unconscionable, consequential, predecessor, disclaimer, diversity, automatic, warranty, opening, saving
COUNSEL: [*1] John E. McKay, LAW OFFICES OF BENSON & McKAY, 911 Main Street, Suite 1430, Kansas City, Missouri 64105, (816) 842-7604; Mark R. Singer/Micheline Z. Burger ROMAIN, BURGER & SINGER, CHTD., The College View Building, 4500 College Blvd., Suite 103, Overland Park, Kansas 66221, (913)649-5224; Paul v. Herbers, James E. Cooling, Cooling, Herbers & Sears, P.C., P.O. Box 26770, Kansas City, MO 64196, (816) 474-0770; Russell C. Leffel, 7315 Frontage Road, Suite 111, Shawnee Mission, KS 66204, 913-362-9727, Neal E. Millert, Larry J. Tyrl, James, Millert, Houdek, Tyrl & Sommers, 804 Bryant Building, 1102 Grand, Kansas City, Missouri 64106, Randolph G. Austin, Speer, Austin, Holliday, & Ruddick, 261 N. Cherry, P.O. Box 1000, Olathe, Kansas 66061.
OPINION BY: O’CONNOR
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
EARL E. O’CONNOR, CHIEF JUDGE.
This matter is before the court on defendants’ motions for summary judgment and plaintiff’s motion for costs. This is a diversity action for wrongful death and survivorship based on claims of negligence, strict liability and breach of express and implied warranties.
I. Motion for Summary Judgment by Defendant SSE, Incorporated.
Defendant SSE, Incorporated, moves for [*2] summary judgment on the ground that plaintiff’s action is barred by the two-year statute of limitations found at K.S.A. 60-513(a). For the following reasons, defendant’s motion must be denied.
[HN1] Summary judgment is appropriate when the matters considered by the court disclose that “there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c). The court must look at the record in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. Prochaska v. Marcoux, 632 F.2d 848, 850 (10th Cir. 1980), cert. denied, 451 U.S. 984 (1981). Before summary judgment may be granted, the moving party must establish that it is entitled to summary judgment beyond a reasonable doubt. Ellis v. El Paso Natural Gas Co., 754 F.2d 884, 885 (10th Cir. 1985).
The uncontroverted facts relevant to this motion are as follows:
1. The plaintiff’s decedent died while skydiving on December 11, 1982, when his parachute failed to open. Decedent’s parachute was equipped with an automatic opening device, which was manufactured by the defendant SSE, Incorporated.
2. Plaintiff filed this lawsuit on August 13, [*3] 1984, consisting of wrongful death and survival claims based on negligence, product liability and breach of warranty. Plaintiff named Steve Snyder Enterprises, Inc., as a defendant, claiming that it was a Pennsylvania corporation that designed, manufactured and sold the defective device.
3. On August 14, 1984, the complaint was mailed to Steve Snyder Enterprises, Inc., at a New Jersey address.
4. Steve Snyder Enterprises, Inc., had changed its name to “SSE, Incorporated,” in November of 1977. Its corporate headquarters, however, remained at the same location.
5. SSE, Incorporated, received the complaint at the New Jersey address.
6. ln a telephone conversation with plaintiff’s counsel, the attorney for SSE, Incorporated, advised plaintiff’s counsel that neither SSE nor its predecessor corporation, Steve Snyder Enterprises, Inc., would accept service by mail.
7. On November 1, 1984, counsel for SSE, Incorporated, rated, wrote to plaintiff’s counsel, again informing him that SSE intended not to acknowledge the mail service.
8. On November 14, 1984, the complaint was again mailed to Steve Snyder Enterprises, Inc. SEE, Incorporated, received the complaint, but refused to sign or [*4] return an acknowledgement.
9. On December 7, 1984, plaintiff filed her first amended complaint, adding SSE, Incorporated, as a defendant.
10. From January 1985 to August 28, 1985, plaintiff’s process servers made thirty-three attempts to personally serve SSE, Incorporated.
11. On August 29, 1985, plaintiff successfully served Steve Snyder, the registered agent and president of SSE, Incorporated.
Defendant SSE, Incorporated, argues that summary judgment is appropriate on all of plaintiff’s claims because they are barred by the two-year statute of limitations for wrongful death actions set forth at K.S.A. 60-513(a)(5). The court notes, however, that not all of plaintiff’s claims are for wrongful death — Counts VI through VIII are survival actions based on negligence, strict liability and breach of express and implied warranties. Nevertheless, a similar two-year statute of limitations (see K.S.A. 60-13(a)(4)) applies to the negligence, strict liability and breach of warranty claims. See Grey v. Bradford-White Corp., 581 F.Supp. 725 (D. Kan. 1984). The court will therefore treat defendant’s motion as seeking summary judgment on all of plaintiff’s claims and not merely plaintiff’s [*5] wrongful death claims.
To decide whether plaintiff’s claims are barred by the two-year statute of limitations, we must first determine when plaintiff’s suit was commenced. [HN2] In a diversity action, the court must apply the state law prescribing when an action commences for statute of limitations purposes rather than Rule 3 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Walker v. Armco Steel Corp., 446 U.S. 740 (1980); Ragan v. Merchants Transfer & Warehouse Company, 337 U.S. 530 (1949). [HN3] Kansas law provides that an action is commenced at the time a petition is filed if service of process is obtained within ninety days. See K.S.A. 60-203(a)(1). If service is not obtained during the 90-day period, then the action is commenced at the time of service. Id.
Defendant argues that plaintiff’s action did not com- mence until August 29, 1985, when plaintiff personally served the agent of SSE, Incorporated, Steve Snyder. Accordingly, since plaintiff’s cause of action arose on December 11, 1982, her claims are barred by the two-year statute of limitations. We are not persuaded by defendant’s argument.
We conclude that plaintiff’s action was timely commenced under the saving provisions [*6] of K.S.A. 60-203(b). That section provides:
[HN4] If service of process or first publication purports to have been made within the time specified by subsection (a)(1) but is later adjudicated to have been invalid due to any irregularity in form or procedure or any defect in making service, the action shall nevertheless be deemed to have been commenced by the original filing of the petition if valid service is obtained or first publication is made within 90 days after that adjudication, except that the court may extend that time an additional 30 days upon a showing of good cause by the plaintiff.
Applying this statute to the facts in this case, we find that plaintiff purported to serve process by mail on August 14, 1984, only one day after the suit was filed. Service by mail is proper under a recent amendment to the Kansas Code of Civil Procedure. 1
See K.S.A. 60-314 (Supp. 1985). We find, however, that plaintiff’s service was invalid due to the defendant’s failure to complete and return the enclosed notice. Under the saving provision of section 60-203(b), we may nevertheless deem plaintiff’s action to have been commenced on the date plaintiff’s complaint was filed, [*7] so long as plaintiff makes personal service on the defendant within ninety days of this order.
1 We must look to the Kansas law prescribing the method of service. This is a diversity action in which plaintiff asserts jurisdiction over the defendant pursuant to the Kansas long-arm statute, K.S.A. 60-308. Fed. R. Civ. P. 4(f) provides that “process other than a subpoena may be served anywhere within the territorial limits of the state in which the district court is held, and when authorized by a statute of the United States or by these rules, beyond the territorial limits of that state.” There is no applicable federal statute that would allow service of process outside the state in this case. Thus, in order to obtain service beyond the territorial limits of the court, there must be authorization in “these rules.” Rule 4(e) provides for service of process on defendants who are not inhabitants of or found within the state. In pertinent part it states:
Whenever a statute or rule of court of the state in which the district is held provides (1) for service of a summons, or of a notice, or of an order in lieu of summons upon a party not an inhabitant of or found within the state, . . . service may . . . be made under the circumstances and in the manner prescribed in the [state] statute or rule.
Clearly, service by mail is a “manner” of service provided by the Kansas statute in this situation. See K.S.A. 60-314 (Supp. 1985).
[*8] Defendant also argues that because plaintiff’s mail service was directed to Steve Snyder Enterprises, Inc., rather than to SSE, Incorporated, it was totally ineffective. We find defendant’s argument meritless for two reasons. First, under the saving provision discussed above, plaintiff’s mistake in naming defendant’s predecessor corporation qualifies as a defect in the service that may be remedied by plaintiff reserving the defendant under its proper name within ninety days of this order. Second, [HN5] both the federal rules (Rule 15(c)) and Kansas law (K.S.A. 60-215(c)) allow for relation back of an amendment changing a party. Under these provisions, [HN6] a change in party relates back so long as the claim asserted arose out of the events set forth in the original complaint and
within the period provided by law for commencing the action against him, the party to be brought in by amendment (1) has received such notice of the institution of the action that he will not be prejudiced in maintaining his defense on the merits, and (2) knew or should have known that, but for a mistake concerning the identity of the proper party, the action would have been brought against him.
Federal Rule [*9] of Civil Procedure 15(c); K.S.A. 60-215(c).
In this case, an amendment changing defendant’s name from Steve Snyder Enterprises, Inc., to SSE, Incorporated, would clearly relate back. First, the claims asserted would be identical to those originally filed. Second, SSE, Incorporated, admits it had notice of this action within the statutory period. Counsel for SSE, Incorporated, informed plaintiff’s counsel in August and November of 1984 that SSE had received the mail service but chose not to acknowledge it. Third, SSE, Incorporated, knew that but for plaintiff’s confusion over the name of its predecessor corporation, the action would have been brought against it.
We therefore hold that plaintiff shall have ninety (90) days from the date of this order to personally serve the defendant SSE, Incorporated. Upon such service, plaintiff’s action will be deemed to have commenced on August 13, 1984, when the case was filed. Plaintiff’s claims will therefore be timely. If, however, plaintiff fails to serve SSE, Incorporated, within the 90-day time period, plaintiff’s action against this defendant will be deemed time-barred. Defendant’s motion for summary judgment will therefore be held in abeyance [*10] for ninety days from the date of this order to allow plaintiff to properly serve the defendant.
II. Plaintiff’s Motion for Costs.
Plaintiff moves for payment of the costs incurred in plaintiff’s previous attempts to personally serve defendant. [HN7] Costs are available pursuant to both Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4(c)(2)(D) and K.S.A. 60-314:
Unless good cause is shown for not doing so the court shall order the payment of the costs of personal service by the person served if such person does not complete and return within 20 days after mailing, the notice and acknowledgment of receipt of summons.
Defendant in this case has shown no reason why costs should not be assessed against it. Defendant deliberately refused to acknowledge mail service and even went so far as to inform plaintiff that it was electing to assert its “right to service of process in the customary manner and not by mail.” Defendant’s Exhibit 4. Not only did defendant refuse mail service, but it also made every attempt to thwart personal service. Plaintiff was thus forced to attempt service at least thirty-three times against defendant. We therefore hold that plaintiff is entitled to recover costs in [*11] the amount of $1,628.47 as requested in her motion. Furthermore, plaintiff will be entitled to recover costs incurred in serving the defendant again, as discussed in part I above, upon plaintiff’s submission of proof of expenses.
III. Motion for Summary Judgment by Defendants Russell Young and Greene County Sport Parachute Center.
Defendant Russell Young moves for summary judgment on the ground that plaintiff’s decedent signed a release and covenant not to sue in favor of Greene County Sport Parachute Center of Wellsville, Kansas, Inc. (hereinafter the Parachute Center), and its employees and agents. The Parachute Center joins in said motion.
The material uncontroverted facts are as follows:
1. On May 8, 1982, plaintiff’s decedent signed a “Release and Covenant Not To Sue,” which read in pertinent part:
[I] do hereby fully and forever release and discharge the said Greene County Sport Parachute Center of Wellsville, Kansas, Inc. and their employees, servants, stockholders, agents, successors, assigns, and all other persons whomsoever directly or indirectly liable, from any and all other claims and demands, actions and cause of action, damages, costs, loss of services, [*12] expenses and any and all other claims of damages whatsoever, resulting from PERSONAL INJURIES, DEATH OR PROPERTY DAMAGES SUSTAINED BY ME, arising out of AIRCRAFT FLIGHTS, PARACHUTE JUMPS, or any other means of lift, ascent or descent from an aircraft of any nature, or arising out of the ownership, operation, use, maintenance or control of any vehicle, whether motor vehicle, aircraft, or otherwise, or any device, or mooring, while on the ground or in flight, and meaning and intending to include herein all such PERSONAL INJURIES, DEATH OR PROPERTY DAMAGE resulting from or in any way connected with or arising out of instructions, training, and ground or air operations incidental thereto.
This release and covenant not to sue is made and entered in consideration of the permission extended to me by Greene County Sport Parachute Center of Wellsville, Kansas, Inc. to participate in a course of parachuting instructions, parachuting training flying activities, ground or air operations incidental to parachuting and flying.
I further acknowledge that I will not rely on any oral or written representation of Greene County Sports Parachute Center of Wellsville, Kansas, Inc. or any agent thereof. [*13] I fully understand that there are dangerous risks in the sport of parachute jumping, and I assume said risks. . . .
I HAVE READ AND FULLY UNDERSTAND that Release and Covenant Not to Sue and sign the same as my own free act.
2. Plaintiff’s decedent also signed an “Indemnity Clause,” which read:
I acknowledge that Greene County Sport Parachute Center of Wellsville, Ks., Inc., is not an insurer of me. I do, for myself, my heirs, executors, administrators and assigns, hereby expressly stipulate, covenant and agree to indemnify and hold forever harmless the said Greene County Sport Parachute Center of Wellsville, Ks., Inc., and its employees, servants, stockholders, agents, successors, and assigns, and all other persons whomsoever against and from any and all actions, causes of action, claims and demands for damages, judgments, executions, costs, loss of services, expenses, compensation, including reimbursement of all legal costs and reasonable counsel fees incurred or paid by the said indemnified parties or any of them, for the investigation, prosecution or defense of any such action, cause of action or claim or demand for damages, and any and all other claims for damages, whatsoever, [*14] which may hereafter arise, or be instituted or recovered against said Greene County Sport Parachute Center of Wellsville, Ks., Inc., and its servants, employees, stockholders, agents, successors, assigns or any other person or persons whomsoever, by me or by any other person whomsoever, whether for the purpose of making or enforcing a claim for damages, on account of PERSONAL INJURIES, DEATH, OR PROPERTY DAMAGE sustained by me, or whether for the purpose of enforcing a claim for damages of any nature by any person whomsoever, on account of, or in any way resulting therefrom.
3. The decedent signed both the clause and release and certified that he had read them. His signature was witnessed by defendant Russell Young, President of the Parachute Center.
4. On the reverse side of the release, the decedent also signed and certified the following statements:
(9) I understand there are potential dangers and risks involved in this sport and acknowledge that the training I have received is intended to minimize such but is no guarantee or representation that there are none.
(10) I understand that parachuting is a potentially dangerous sport and that the proper functions of these parachutes [*15] or any parachute cannot be and is not guaranteed.
5. The decedent ordered and promised to pay for an automatic parachute opening device from the defendants Parachute Center and Russell Young. Young delivered the device to the decedent in December 1982.
6. The decedent used the device for the first time while skydiving on December 11, 1982. His parachute failed to open, he fell to the ground and was fatally injured.
7. The decedent’s widow paid the Parachute Center $254.60 for the device on January 27, 1983.
[HN8] Kansas courts have long recognized the validity of exculpatory agreements relieving a party from liability unless it would be against the settled public policy to do so. See, e.g., Belger Cartage Service, Inc. v. Holland Construction Co., 224 Kan. 320, 329, 582 P.2d 1111, 1118 (1978); Hunter v. American Rentals, 189 Kan. 615, 617, 371 P.2d 131, 133 (1962). Exculpatory contracts, however, “are not favored by the law and are strictly construed against the party relying on them.” Cason v. Geis Irrigation Co., 211 Kan. 406, 411, 507 P.2d 295, 299 (1973). Accord. Belger, 224 Kan. at 329, 582 P.2d at 1119. The terms of the agreement are not to be extended to [*16] situations not plainly within the language employed. Baker v. City of Topeka, 231 Kan. 328, 334, 644 P.2d 441, 446 (1982); Missouri Pacific Railroad Co. v. City of Topeka, 213 Kan. 658, 664, 518 P.2d 372, 377 (1973). It is not necessary, however, that the agreement contain specific or express language covering in so many words the party’s negligence, if the intention to exculpate the party from liability clearly appears from the contract, the surrounding circumstances and the purposes and objects of the parties. Bartlett v. Davis Corp., 219 Kan. 148, 159, 547 P.2d 800, 806 (1976).
After reviewing the language of the contract and the totality of the circumstances to determine the intent of these parties, we conclude that the release and indemnity clause do not preclude plaintiff’s action. First, a review of the agreement itself shows that, although it specifically releases the Parachute Center from liability for injuries or death arising out of the “ownership, operation, use, maintenance or control” of many device,” the agreement fails to mention any release of liability revolving around the sale of any product to the parachuter. Granted, there is a paragraph in [*17] which the parachuter states that he understands that parachuting is a potentially dangerous sport and that the proper function of the parachute cannot be guaranteed. Strictly construing the agreement, however, we do not believe that this should be interpreted to exempt the Parachute Center from a failure to use due care in furnishing safe equipment, or should allow it to sell a product in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the parachuter. To do so would impermissibly extend the terms of the agreement to situations not plainly within its language.
Other courts have held that similar releases exempt parachute centers and trainers only from injuries that ordinarily occur without any fault of the defendant. See Diedrich v. Wright, 550 F.Supp. 805 (N.D. Ill. 1982); Gross v. Sweet, 49 N.Y.2d 102, 424 N.Y.S.2d 65, 400 N.E.2d 306 (Ct.App. 1979). We agree with these courts that the language alerting the parachuter to the dangers in parachute jumping is used to drive home to the individual that he must enter into this sport with an apprehension of the risks inherent in the nature of the sport. See 550 F.Supp. at 808; 49 N.Y.2d at
, 424 N.Y.S.2d at 369, 400 [*18] N.E.2d at It does not, however, follow that he must accept enhanced exposure to injury or death based on the carelessness of the defendants in selling him a defective product or failing to warn him about its use.
Furthermore, we hold that the release was ineffective under Kansas law to limit liability for a breach of either an express or implied warranty. [HN9] With respect to disclaimer of express warranties, K.S.A. 84-2-719(3) provides:
Consequential damages may be limited or excluded unless the limitation or exclusion is unconscionable. Limitation of consequential damages for injury to the person in the case of consumer goods is prima facie unconscionable but limitation of damages where the loss is commercial is not.
In this case, the automatic opening device qualifies as a consumer good under K.S.A. 84-9-109. Under section 84-2-719(3), the defendants’ attempt to exclude consequential damages for personal injury was unconscionable and therefore unenforceable.
Furthermore, with respect to disclaimer of implied warranties of merchantability, [HN10] the Kansas Consumer Protection Act flatly prohibits in consumer cases the use of any limitation on remedies or liability for implied [*19] warranties, and declares that any such disclaimers are void. K.S.A. 50-639(a) and (e). See also id. at 84-2-719 (Kansas Comment).
We therefore hold that plaintiff’s action is not barred by the release, covenant not to sue and indemnity clause signed by plaintiff’s decedent. Summary judgment in favor of the defendants Parachute Center and Russell Young is therefore inappropriate.
IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED that defendants’ motion for summary judgment by Russell Young and Greene County Sport Parachute Center of Wellsville, Kansas, Inc., is denied.
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that defendant’s motion for summary judgment by SSE, Incorporated, shall be held in abeyance until plaintiff obtains personal service upon SSE, Incorporated. Plaintiff shall have ninety (90) days from the date of this order to personally serve SSE, Incorporated. If plaintiff fails to so serve the defendant, defendant’s motion for summary judgment will be granted.
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that plaintiff’s motion for costs to personally serve the defendant SSE, Incorporated, in the amount of $1,628.47, is granted.
Dated this 14th May of March, 1986, at Kansas City, Kansas.
Childress v. Madison County, 777 S.W.2d 1 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1989)
William Todd Childress, By and Through his parents, Ira Childress and Joyce Childress, and Ira Childress and Joyce Childress, individually, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. Madison County, Tennessee, The Madison County Board of Education, and the Young Men’s Christian Association, Jackson, Tennessee, a/k/a Y.M.C.A., Defendants-Appellees
[NO NUMBER IN ORIGINAL]
Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Western Section
777 S.W.2d 1; 1989 Tenn. App. LEXIS 48
January 24, 1989, Filed
SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Application for Permission to Appeal Denied August 7, 1989.
PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] From the Circuit Court of Madison County, Tennessee, MADISON LAW NO. 5, The Honorable Andrew T. Taylor, Judge
DISPOSITION: AFFIRMED IN PART, REVERSED IN PART AND REMANDED.
COUNSEL: David Hardee, Linda L. Moore, Jackson, Attorneys for Plaintiffs-Appellants.
J. Tim Edwards, Memphis, Glassman, Jeter & Edwards, Attorney for Defendants-Appellees.
JUDGES: Highers, J. Nearn, Sp. J., concurs. Tomlin, P.J., W.S., concurs separately.
OPINION BY: HIGHERS
[*2] The plaintiffs, Ira Childress and Joyce Childress, brought this action individually and on behalf of their son, William Todd Childress, against Madison County and the Madison County Board of Education, alleging negligence which proximately caused personal injury to their son, a mentally handicapped student in Special Education at South Side High School. After a bench trial, the court found that the evidence did not preponderate in favor of the contentions of the plaintiffs. Plaintiffs are appealing from a judgment for the defendants.
At the time of the accident, William Todd Childress was a twenty-year old, nonverbal, severely retarded student. He traveled regularly with his class to the Y.M.C.A. to use recreational facilities, including a swimming pool. 1 [**2] The trips were supervised by a teacher and an aide, both employees of Madison County, and while at the pool, by a lifeguard employed by the Y.M.C.A.
1 The Y.M.C.A. was originally a party defendant, but was dismissed before trial and is not involved in this appeal.
Some of the trips were to allow students to train for the Special Olympics. Childress’ event consisted of walking the width of the shallow end of the swimming pool and handing a floating ball to an attendant.
On April 11, 1984, near the end of one of these training excursions to the Y.M.C.A., Childress was found on the floor of the pool at the point where the pool slopes from the shallow to the deep end. He was retrieved by the lifeguard and, after resuscitation began to breathe. He expelled water, vomited, and coughed, but otherwise appeared normal. An ambulance was called and Childress was taken to the hospital and admitted. Childress sustained injuries and incurred medical expenses as a result of this incident.
[*3] The teacher testified that there were three people who were responsible for observing the class — the teacher, the aide, and the lifeguard. The teacher testified that she was at the shallow end of the [**3] pool, the aide was on the other side of the pool, and the lifeguard was in and out of the pool at various points while offering instruction to students.
On this occasion the teacher stated that she was working with Childress. She described the events leading to the accident as follows:
Q. And toward the end of that hour what specifically were you doing with the children?
A. Well, the last thing that I did before I got out of the pool was work with Todd going back and forth across the pool.
Q. He would be walking back and forth across the pool?
Q. And when you ceased that activity, what did you do?
A. I told Todd to get out of the water and told all of the other children to get out of the water.
Q. Did Todd get out of the water?
A. I did not see Todd get out of the water. As the children were exiting the pool another student jumped in at the shallow end, who was a swimmer, to swim a lap and I walked along the edge of the pool as he swam to the deep end.
Q. Did you ever again see Todd after you told him to get out of the pool until he was found underwater?
* * * *
Q. Do you know who was watching Todd?
Q. Do you know if anybody was watching [**4] Todd?
A. We all had joint responsibility for watching the students.
Q. Do you know if anyone was watching Todd as he was getting out of the pool?
A. I would have no way of knowing.
In light of the testimony, we are of the opinion that the evidence preponderates against a finding of no negligence. [HN1] In non-jury matters the findings of fact of the trial court come to this court with a presumption of correctness and are reviewed de novo. Unless the evidence preponderates against the findings, we must affirm. T.R.A.P. 13(d). The trial court’s judgment in this case indicates that he found no negligence on the part of Madison County or the Madison County Board of Education. The proof shows, however, that the teacher and the aide were responsible for watching the students; that the teacher ordered students out of the pool, but did not actually see Childress exit; that she became involved in observing another student, and did not know whether Childress left the pool; and that she did not know whether anyone was watching Childress during the crucial period when he apparently went into water that was over his head, thereby sustaining the injuries and damages which gave rise to the complaint. [**5] It further appears that each of the attendants was involved in small group instruction and that no one actually scanned the pool in order to see whether the group as a whole had obeyed the instructions to leave the area. But for the fact that no one watched the pool without the distractions of other instruction, Childress would not have been injured.
Under these circumstances, we cannot say that plaintiffs have failed to make out a case by the greater weight or preponderance of the evidence.
The defendants have raised a further issue in this case, however, that the mother executed a release of all liability of these defendants. It is their contention that even if they were guilty of negligence the action is barred by the release of claims executed by the mother individually and on behalf of her son.
[HN2] It is well settled in this state that parties may contract that one shall not be liable for his negligence to another but that such other shall assume the risk incident to such negligence. Moss v. Fortune, 207 Tenn. 426, 340 S.W.2d 902 (1960). This [*4] rule is subject to exception. A party cannot contract away his liability for willful or gross negligence. [**6] Memphis & Charleston Railroad Co. v. Jones, 39 Tenn. (2 Head) 517 (1859). Neither can a party contract away liability if the duty under which he acts is a public one. Cincinnati, New Orleans & Texas Pacific Railway Co. v. Saulsbury, 115 Tenn. 402, 90 S.W. 624, 626 (1905); Carolina, Clinchfield & Ohio Railway Co. v. Unaka Springs Lumber Co., 130 Tenn. 354, 170 S.W. 591, 594 (1914); Hartford Fire Insurance Co. v. Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway Co., 175 U.S. 91, 20 S. Ct. 33, 44 L. Ed. 84 (1899).
[HN3] The existence of a public duty which would disallow giving effect to an exculpatory provision is determined by looking at several factors. If the service provided is the type which may generally be subject to public regulation then the duty probably exists. Smith v. Southern Bell, 364 S.W.2d at 958. Other factors include the degree to which the service is of practical necessity for some members of the public, whether the service is offered to any member of the public who seeks it or qualifies for it, whether one party has greater bargaining power than [**7] members of the general public, whether in exercising that bargaining power, the party presents a standardized “adhesion” contract making no provision whereby protection against negligence may be obtained, or whether the person or property of one party is placed under the control of the other. Olson v. Molzen, 558 S.W.2d 429, 431 (Tenn. 1977) (adopting the rule of Tunkl v. Regents of University of California, 60 Cal.2d 92, 32 Cal. Rptr. 33, 383 P.2d 441 (1963)). [HN4] Particularly offensive in Tennessee are exculpation contracts executed by persons in professional vocations. Olson, 558 S.W.2d at 432.
[HN5] Persons and businesses which normally operate under a public duty are not bound by the exception and can execute valid exculpation contracts when the transaction in question is not under that public duty. Thus it has been held that a telephone company can execute such a contract as to its advertising services, Smith v. Southern Bell, 51 Tenn. App. 146, 364 S.W.2d 952, 957-958, citing Mitchell v. Southwestern Bell Telephone Co., 298 S.W.2d 520 (Mo. App. 1957), and a common carrier may contract [**8] against liability when executing a lease agreement, Cincinnati, N.O. & T.P.R.Co. v. Saulsbury, 90 S.W. at 626.
Analyzing the facts of this case under the foregoing rules, we find that the Special Olympics generally, and the services provided in this case specifically, are governed by the general rule and do not fall under the exception prohibiting exculpatory clauses. Although there are a number of circumstances which would otherwise bring the Special Olympics under the exceptions related to professional or public services, our analysis of all the cases cited reveals that the rule was intended to operate primarily in the marketplace. The Olson opinion in analyzing the public duty exception refers to “business,” “bargaining strength” in “economic settings,” “purchasers,” and payment of “additional fees to obtain protection against negligence” implying that there were fees in the first place. We are not here saying that the touchstone of the analysis is the existence or absence of business motivations, or pecuniary exchange. But when those considerations which are tied to economic factors are eliminated from the analysis, in this case by the absence [**9] of any business motivations, the remaining factors are insufficient to bring this case under the exception. Having determined that the [HN6] exculpatory clauses are generally valid as to the Special Olympics, we look now to the provisions of the clause used in this case.
The exculpatory language in this case is a part of a form document entitled “Tennessee Special Olympics Parental/Medical Release Form.” It is printed on an 8 1/2″ X 11″ sheet divided into three sections, the right half of the page being a medical release to be completed by a physician or registered nurse. The left half of the page is divided into two sections, the top being for completion by parents or teachers requiring statistical date such as age, clothing sizes, and addresses of the participant. [*5] The bottom section is entitled “Parent/Guardian Release.” As completed in the case at bar, the release is as follows:
I hereby give permission for the entrant named above to participate in the Special Olympics program — a sports-training, recreation, and competitive athletic program for mentally retarded children and adults.
I represent and warrant to you that [**10] the entrant is physically and mentally able to participate in Special Olympics, and I submit herewith a subscribed medical certificate.
Consent to Treatment:
You are authorized on my behalf and at my account to take such measures and arrange for such medical and hospital treatment as you may deem advisable for the health and well-being of the entrant without the need for further consent or permission.
Release of Claim:
I, the undersigned, individually and on behalf of the above-named entrant, acknowledge that the entrant will be using facilities at his/her own risk. I, on my own behalf, hereby release, discharge and indemnify Special Olympics, its directors, officers, employees, physicians, agents, and all volunteer personnel from all liabilities for damage, injury or illness to the entrant or his/her property during his/her participation in or travel to or from any Special Olympics event. (Emphasis Supplied)
Permission to Publish:
Permission is hereby granted to use the name, likeness, voice and words of the entrant in television, radio, films, newspapers, magazines and other media, and in any form not heretofore described for the purposes and activities of Special Olympics [**11] and in appealing for funds to support such activities.
Mrs. Ira Childress (subscribed)
Relationship to Entrant
The emphasized language is at issue. The trial judge was of the opinion that Mrs. Childress “had executed a document releasing these defendants from liabilities as a result of any injuries that might occur in connection with the Special Olympics program.” This conclusion is in part correct.
[HN7] Exculpatory clauses purporting to contract against liability for intentional conduct, recklessness or gross negligence are unenforceable. See Adams v. Roark, 686 S.W.2d 73 (Tenn. 1985) Memphis & Charleston Railroad Co., supra. We find that the defendants in this case have not exceeded the bounds of simple negligence, even in light of the higher standard of care under which they operate due to the students’ mental disability. See 65A C.J.S. Negligence § 141 (1966).
The parties in this case are the plaintiffs, Todd Childress, by his parents, and his mother, Joyce Childress, and his father, Ira Childress, individually; and the defendants, Madison [**12] County, and the Madison County Board of Education. The defendants were at the time of the incident in question acting through the teacher and her aide as agents or volunteers of the Special Olympics. The incident occurred during a Special Olympics training session, which the evidence shows was a “Special Olympics event” within the meaning of that phrase as used in the release form. While the evidence did show that there had been trips to the Y.M.C.A. pool which were independent of Special Olympics training, it is clear that the objective of this particular trip was to train for the Special Olympics and during this trip the teachers acted within the purview of duties they assumed as agents and/or volunteers of Special Olympics. Therefore, any liability for any actions taken must be analyzed as the actions of agents or volunteers of the Special Olympics as governed by the release form.
[*6] The plaintiffs assert on appeal that the evidence established that Mrs. Childress had signed a number of “permission slips” and that in executing the release form, Mrs. Childress thought that she was merely signing another permission slip. We find this assertion unsupportable by the evidence. [**13] The evidence shows that the permission slips which Mrs. Childress signed were mimeographed copies of a handwritten form. The release form was not mimeographed and was copied from a printed document not handwritten, not even typed. Besides the difference facially, the content of the release is very different from the content of the permission slips. Mrs. Childress signed the document, and cannot, under these circumstances assert she thought she was signing a permission slip and not a release. Even if that were a valid assertion, it would make no difference in the outcome of the case. [HN8] Although notice of an exculpatory clause is a prerequisite to its validity, Dodge v. Nashville Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway Co., 142 Tenn. 20, 215 S.W. 274 (1919), a party’s failure to read does not constitute a lack of notice to that party, Dixon v. Manier, 545 S.W.2d 948, 949 (Tenn. App. 1976).
Of the plaintiffs, only Mrs. Childress, Todd’s mother signed the release form. The language, quoted above, is clear and unambiguous. Mrs. Childress acknowledged that Todd would be participating at his own risk. She further agreed to “release, discharge and [**14] indemnify Special Olympics, its . . . agents, and all volunteer personnel.” Therefore, the trial judge was correct in dismissing this case as to Mrs. Childress individually.
Mr. Childress did not himself sign the release form and there is no indication in the language of the form or in the manner in which Mrs. Childress signed that she did in fact, or was even authorized to, release or discharge the Special Olympics on Mr. Childress’ behalf. However, Mrs. Childress did clearly agree to indemnify the Special Olympics “from all liabilities for damage, injury or illness to the entrant or his/her property during his/her participation in or travel to or from any Special Olympics event.” Therefore, to the extent the defendants are liable to Mr. Childress, Mrs. Childress, as indemnitor, must compensate him.
Neither did the remaining plaintiff, Todd Childress, sign the release form himself. Had he done so, being an incompetent, incapable of understanding the nature of his action, the execution could not be given effect. See 44 C.J.S. Insane Persons § 49 (1945). But, according to the language of the release, Mrs. Childress, as his mother and natural parent, acknowledged on Todd’s behalf [**15] that he would be participating at his own risk.
[HN9] The status of guardians of incompetent persons is similar to that of guardians of infants, especially in view of courts of equity. Id. The general rule is that a guardian may not waive the rights of an infant or an incompetent. 39 Am. Jur.2d, Guardian & Ward § 102 (1968); 42 Am. Jur.2d, Infants § 152 (1969). Specifically, [HN10] the Supreme Court of Tennessee long ago stated that a guardian cannot settle an existing claim apart from court approval or statutory authority. Miles v. Kaigler, 18 Tenn. (10 Yerg.) 10 (1836). Spitzer v. Knoxville Iron, Co., 133 Tenn. 217, 180 S.W. 163 (1915). Tune v. Louisville & Nashville Railroad Co., 223 F. Supp. 928 (MD Tenn. 1963). It has also been held that [HN11] a guardian may not waive the statutory requirements for service of process on an infant or incompetent by accepting service of process on himself alone. Winchester v. Winchester, 38 Tenn. (1 Head) 460 (1858).
The courts of other states have recognized this general rule in a number of circumstances including those cited above. See e.g. Gibson v. Anderson, 265 Ala. 553, 92 So.2d 692, 695 (1956) [**16] (legal guardian’s acts do not estop ward from asserting rights in property); Ortman v. Kane, 389 Ill. 613, 60 N.E.2d 93, 98 (1945) (guardian cannot waive tender requirements of land sale contract entered into by ward prior to incompetency); Stockman v. City of South Portland, 147 Me 376, 87 A.2d 679 (1952) (guardian cannot waive ward’s property tax exemption); Sharp v. State, 240 Miss. 629, 127 So.2d 865, 90 A.L.R.2d 284 (1961) [*7] (guardian cannot waive statutory requirements for service of process on ward); Jones v. Dressel, 623 P.2d 370 (Colo. 1981) (ratification by parent of contract executed by child does not bind child); Whitcomb v. Dancer, 140 Vt. 580, 443 A.2d 458 (1982) (guardian cannot settle personal injury claim for ward without court approval); Natural Father v. United Methodist Children’s Home, 418 So.2d 807 (Miss. 1982) (infant not bound by evidentiary admissions of parent); Colfer v. Royal Globe Ins. Co., 214 N.J. Super. 374, 519 A.2d 893 (1986) (guardian [**17] cannot settle personal injury claim for ward without court approval).
In Mississippi, the rule was expressed in broad terms by the Supreme Court in Khoury v. Saik, 203 Miss. 155, 33 So.2d 616, 618 (1948): “Minors can waive nothing. In the law they are helpless, so much so that their representatives can waive nothing for them.” See also Parker v. Smith, 150 Miss. 849, 117 So. 249, 250 (1928).
The Supreme Court of Connecticut has specifically held that [HN12] an agreement, signed by one of the parents of a minor as a condition to his being allowed to attend a camp, waiving the minor’s claims against a camp for damages in the event of an injury was ineffective to waive the rights of the minor against the defendant camp. Fedor v. Mauwehu Council, Boy Scouts of America, Inc., 21 Conn. Sup. 38, 143 A.2d 466, 468 (1958). The Supreme Court of Maine reached the same conclusion in Doyle v. Bowdoin College, 403 A.2d 1206, 1208 n.3 (Me. 1979). In Doyle, the court held that if the agreement in question were a release, it would be ineffective because a parent cannot release the child’s [**18] action.
We believe the rule stated above is in keeping with the protection which Tennessee has afforded to the rights of infants and minors in other situations. We, therefore, hold that Mrs. Childress could not execute a valid release or exculpatory clause as to the rights of her son against the Special Olympics or anyone else, and to the extent the parties to the release attempted and intended to do so, the release is void.
The indemnity provisions of the release are on a similar footing. [HN13] Indemnification agreements executed by a parent or guardian in favor of tort feasors, actual or potential, committing torts against an infant or incompetent, are invalid as they place the interests of the child or incompetent against those of the parent or guardian. See Valdimer v. Mt. Vernon Hebrew Camps, Inc., 9 N.Y.2d 21, 210 N.Y.S.2d 520, 172 N.E.2d 283, 285 (1961). “Clearly, a parent who has placed himself in the position of indemnitor will be a dubious champion of his infant child’s rights.” Id. See also Ohio Casualty Insurance Co. v. Mallison, 223 Or 406, 354 P.2d 800, 802-803 (1960). We are aware that the indemnity [**19] agreements in the two cases just cited were executed after the cause of action had arisen. This fact does not change the rule, and [HN14] indemnity provisions executed by the parent prior to a cause of action in favor of a child cannot be given effect. Were the rule otherwise, it would circumvent the rule regarding exculpatory clauses and the policy of affording protection in the law to the rights of those who are unable effectively to protect those rights themselves.
We do not deny that there are good and logical reasons for giving effect to exculpatory and indemnification clauses executed by parents and guardians on behalf of infants and incompetents. Risk is inherent in many activities that make the lives of children richer. A world without risk would be an impoverished world indeed. As Helen Keller well said, “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” Partnow, Quotable Woman, 173 (1977). Ultimately, this case is a determination of who must bear the burden of the risk of injury to infants and minors.
[**20] It is not our intention, nor do we feel the result of this case will be, to put a chill on activities such as the Special Olympics. [HN15] The law is clear that a guardian cannot on behalf of an infant or incompetent, exculpate or indemnify against liability those [*8] organizations which sponsor activities for children and the mentally disabled. If this rule of law is other than as it should be, we feel the remedy is with the Supreme Court or the legislature.
The judgment of the trial court is affirmed as to Joyce Childress individually, and her case is dismissed. As to Ira Childress individually, and William Todd, by and through his parents, Ira Childress and Joyce Childress, this case is reversed and remanded for such further proceedings as may be required. Costs on appeal are assessed against appellees.
CONCUR BY: TOMLIN
SEPARATE CONCURRING OPINION
TOMLIN, P.J., W.S.
I readily concur in the excellent opinion written by my colleague. In addition, I would hold that even if the law in this state was to the effect that Mrs. [**21] Childress could execute a valid release as to the rights of her son, the release, as executed, as I interpret it, attempts to release only the mother’s rights and not those of her son. For instance, the first sentence, acknowledging that young Childress was using the facilities at his own risk, begins with the language: “I, the undersigned, individually and on behalf of the above-named entrant . . . .” [emphasis added] However, the language purporting to release the Special Olympics and others reads as follows: “I, on my own behalf, hereby release, discharge and indemnify . . . .” [emphasis added] It is obvious that the language last used purports only to release the rights of the “undersigned,” i.e., Mrs. Childress, and not those of her handicapped son.