Hiett v. Lake Barcroft Community Association, Inc., et al., 244 Va. 191; 418 S.E.2d 894; 1992 Va. LEXIS 69; 8 Va. Law Rep. 3381

Hiett v. Lake Barcroft Community Association, Inc., et al., 244 Va. 191; 418 S.E.2d 894; 1992 Va. LEXIS 69; 8 Va. Law Rep. 3381

Robert David Hiett v. Lake Barcroft Community Association, Inc., et al.

Record No. 911395

Supreme Court of Virginia

244 Va. 191; 418 S.E.2d 894; 1992 Va. LEXIS 69; 8 Va. Law Rep. 3381

June 5, 1992

COUNSEL: Bernard S. Cohen (Sandra M. Rohrstaff; Cohen, Dunn & Sinclair, on brief), for appellant.

Joseph D. Roberts (Slenker, Brandt, Jennings & Johnson, on brief), for appellees.

JUDGES: Justice Keenan delivered the opinion of the Court.



[*192]   [**894]  The primary issue in this appeal is whether a pre-injury release from liability for negligence is void as being against public policy.

Robert D. Hiett sustained an injury which rendered him a quadriplegic while participating in the “Teflon Man Triathlon” (the triathlon) sponsored by the Lake Barcroft  [**895]  Community Association, Inc. (LABARCA).  The injury occurred at the start of the swimming event when Hiett waded into Lake Barcroft to a point where the water reachedhis [***2]  thighs, dove into the water, and struck his head on either the lake bottom or an object beneath the water surface.

Thomas M. Penland, Jr., a resident of Lake Barcroft, organized and directed the triathlon. He drafted the entry form which all participants were required to sign.  The first sentence of the form provided:

In consideration of this entry being accept[ed] to participate in the Lake Barcroft Teflon Man Triathlon I hereby, for myself, my heirs, and executors waive, release and forever discharge any and all rights and claims for damages which I may have or  [*193]  m[a]y hereafter accrue to me against the organizers and sponsors and their representatives, successors, and assigns, for any and all injuries suffered by me in said event.

Evelyn Novins, a homeowner in the Lake Barcroft subdivision, asked Hiett to participate in the swimming portion of the triathlon. She and Hiett were both teachers at a school for learning-disabled children.  Novins invited Hiett to participate as a member of one of two teams of fellow teachers she was organizing.  During a break between classes, Novins presented Hiett with the entry form and he signed it.

Hiett alleged inhis [***3]  third amended motion for judgment that LABARCA, Penland, and Novins had failed to ensure that the lake was reasonably safe, properly supervise the swimming event, advise the participants of the risk of injury, and train them how to avoid such injuries.  Hiett also alleged that Penland and Novins were agents of LABARCA and that Novins’s failure to direct his attention to the release clause in the entry form constituted constructive fraud and misrepresentation.

In a preliminary ruling, the trial court held that, absent fraud, misrepresentation, duress, illiteracy, or the denial of an opportunity to read the form, the entry form was a valid contract and that the pre-injury release language in the contract released the defendants from liability for negligence.  The trial court also ruled that such a release was prohibited as a matter of public policy only when it was included: (1) in a common carrier’s contract of carriage; (2) in the contract of a public utility under a duty to furnish telephone service; or (3) as a condition of employment set forth in an employment contract.

Pursuant to an agreement between the parties, the trial court conducted an evidentiary hearing in whichit determined [***4]  that there was sufficient evidence to present to a jury on the issue of constructive fraud and misrepresentation. Additionally, the trial court ruled that as a matter of law Novins was not an agent of LABARCA, and it dismissed her from the case.

The remaining parties proceeded to trial solely on the issue whether there was constructive fraud and misrepresentation by the defendants such as would invalidate the waiver-release language in the entry form.  After Hiett had rested his case, the trial court granted the defendants’ motion to strike the evidence.  This appeal followed.

[*194]  Hiett first argues that the trial court erred in ruling that the pre-injury release provision in the entry form did not violate public policy. He contends that since the decision of this Court in Johnson’s Adm’x v. Richmond and Danville R.R. Co., 86 Va. 975, 11 S.E. 829 (1890), the law in Virginia has been settled that an agreement entered into prior to any injury, releasing a tortfeasor from liability for negligence resulting in personal injury, is void because it violates public policy. Hiett asserts that the later cases of this Court have addressed only therelease of liability [***5]  from property damage or indemnification against liability to third parties. Thus, he contends that the holding in Johnson remains unchanged.  In response, LABARCA and Novins argue that the decisions of this Court since Johnson have established  [**896]  that pre-injury release agreements such as the one before us do not violate public policy. We disagree with LABARCA and Novins.

The case law in this Commonwealth over the past one hundred years has not altered the holding in Johnson.  In Johnson, this Court addressed the validity of a pre-injury release of liability for future negligent acts.  There, the decedent was a member of a firm of quarry workers which had entered into an agreement with a railroad company to remove a granite bluff located on the company’s right of way.  The agreement specified that the railroad would not be liable for any injuries or death sustained by any members of the firm, or its employees, occurring from any cause whatsoever.

The decedent was killed while attempting to warn one of his employees of a fast-approaching train. The evidence showed that the train was moving at a speed of not less than 25 miles per hour, notwithstanding the [***6]  railroad company’s agreement that all trains would pass by the work site at speeds not exceeding six miles per hour.

[1] In holding that the release language was invalid because it violated public policy, this Court stated:

[T]o hold that it was competent for one party to put the other parties to the contract at the mercy of its own misconduct . . . can never be lawfully done where an enlightened system of jurisprudence prevails.  Public policy forbids it, and contracts against public policy are void.

 [*195]  86 Va. at 978, 11 S.E. at 829. This Court emphasized that its holding was not based on the fact that the railroad company was a common carrier.  Rather, this Court found that such  [HN1] provisions for release from liability for personal injury which may be caused by future acts of negligence are prohibited “universally.” 86 Va. at 978, 11 S.E. at 830.

[2] As noted by Hiett, the cases following Johnson have not eroded this principle.  Instead, this Court’s decisions after Johnson have been limited to upholding theright to contract for the release of liability for property damage, as well as indemnification from liability to [***7]  third parties for such damage.

[3] In C. & O. Ry. Co. v. Telephone Co., 216 Va. 858, 224 S.E.2d 317 (1976), this Court upheld a provision in an agreement entered into by the parties to allow the telephone company to place underground cables under a certain railway overpass.  In the agreement, the telephone company agreed to release the C & O Railway Company from any damage to the wire line crossing and appurtenances.  In upholding this property damage stipulation, this Court found that public policy considerations were not implicated.  216 Va. at 865-66, 224 S.E. at 322.

This Court upheld another property damage release provision in Nido v. Ocean Owners’ Council, 237 Va. 664, 378 S.E.2d 837 (1989). There, a condominium unit owner filed suit against the owners’ council of the condominium for property damage to his unit resulting from a defect in the common area of the condominium. This Court held that, under the applicable condominium by-laws, each unit owner had voluntarily waived his right to bring an action againstthe owners’ council for such property damage. 237 Va. at 667, 378 S.E.2d at 838. 1

1 Although the by-law at issue attempted to release the owners’ council for injury to both persons and property, the issue before the Court involved only the property damage portion of the clause.

 [***8]  [4] Other cases decided by this Court since Johnson have upheld provisions for indemnification against future property damage claims.  In none of these cases, however, did the Court address the issue whether an indemnification provision would be valid against a claim for personal injury.

In Richardson – Wayland v. VEPCO, 219 Va. 198, 247 S.E.2d 465 (1978), the disputed claim involved property damage only, although  [**897]  the contract provided that VEPCO would be indemnified against both property damage and personal injury claims.  This  [*196]  Court held that the provision for indemnification against property damage did not violate public policy. In so holding, this Court emphasizedthe fact that the contract was not between VEPCO and a consumer but, rather, that it was a contract made by VEPCO with a private company for certain repairs to its premises.  219 Va. at 202-03, 247 S.E.2d at 468.

This Court also addressed an indemnification clause covering liability for both personal injury and property damage in Appalachian Power Co. v. Sanders, 232 Va. 189, 349 S.E.2d 101 (1986). However, this Court was not required [***9]  to rule on the validity of the clause with respect to a claim for personal injury, based on its holding that the party asserting indemnification was not guilty of actionable negligence.  232 Va. at 196, 349 S.E. at 106.

Finally, in Kitchin v. Gary Steel Corp., 196 Va. 259, 83 S.E.2d 348 (1954), this Court found that an indemnification agreement between a prime contractor and its subcontractor was not predicated on negligence.  For this reason, this Court held that there was no merit in the subcontractor’s claim that the agreement violated public policy as set forth in Johnson.  196 Va. at 265, 83 S.E.2d at 351.

[5] We agree with Hiett that the above cases have notmodified or altered the holding in Johnson.  Therefore, we conclude here, based on Johnson, that the pre-injury release provision signed by Hiett is prohibited by public policy and, thus, it is void. Johnson, 86 Va. at 978, 11 S.E. at 829.

[6] Since we have held that the pre-injury release agreement signed by Hiett is void, the issue whether Novins acted as LABARCA’s agent in procuring Hiett’s signature will not be before the trial court in [***10]  the retrial of this case.  Nevertheless, Hiett argues that, irrespective of any agency relationship, Novins had a common law duty to warn Hiett of the dangerous condition of the uneven lake bottom. We disagree.

[7] The record before us shows that Lake Barcroft is owned by Barcroft Beach, Incorporated, and it is operated and controlled by Barcroft Lake Management Association, Incorporated.  Further, it is undisputed that the individual landowners in the Lake Barcroft subdivision have no ownership interest in the Lake. Since Novins had no ownership interest in or control over the operation of Lake Barcroft, she had no duty to warn Hiett of any dangerous condition therein.  See Busch v. Gaglio, 207 Va. 343, 348, 150 S.E.2d 110, 114 (1966).Therefore, Hiett’s assertion that Novins had a duty to warn him of the condition of the lake bottom, fails as a matter of  [*197]  law, and we conclude that the trial court did not err in dismissing Novins from the case.

Accordingly, we will affirm in part and reverse in part the judgment of the trial court, and we will remand this case for further proceedings consistent with the principles expressed in this opinion. 2

2 Based on our decision here, we do not reach the questions raised by the remaining assignments of error.

[***11]  Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.



Too many contracts can void each other out; two releases signed at different times can render both releases void.

Upon signing the second release the first is void based on Novation and the second is void because there is not consideration for the second release.

Example I: You sign a release electronically to participate in an activity. Upon arrival, the outfitter of the activity has you sign a paper release.

Example II: You sign up with a rec center to go skiing. The rec center has you sign a release and when you get to the activity, the ski area has you sign a release. Both releases stop lawsuits for skiing accidents but one protects the rec center, and one protects the ski area. Each release has different language.

Novation is a legal term that states that once you sign a second identical or similar contract to the first contract the second contract voids the first contract based on Novation. Terms such as the amount due, interest owed, etc., can be different as long as the basic agreement is the same, and the parties are generally the same. defines Novation as:

An agreement of parties to a contract to substitute a new contract for the old one. It extinguishes (cancels) the old agreement. A novation is often used when the parties find that payments or performance cannot be made under the terms of the original agreement, or the debtor will be forced to default or go into bankruptcy unless the debt is restructured. defines Novation as:

The voluntary substitution of a new contract for an old one, usually to change the parties, duties, or payment terms.

Black’s Law Dictionary defines Novation as:

A contract that (1) immediately discharges either a previous contractual duty or a duty, (2) creates a new contractual duty, and (3) includes as a party one who neither owed the previous duty nor was entitled to its performance.

Many definitions of Novation include the word debt, meaning an obligation to repay, a promissory note, but not all definitions do. One argument to make is the Novation does not apply to a release because it is not a debt.

In the first example, Novation could be argued to void the first release. A new agreement has been signed, which then cancels the first agreement.

In the second example, if the parties are the same or similar and the intent of the release is the same, then it is possible that one can argue that a novation occurred canceling the first release.

In the second agreement if the group is a Youth Group that is taking kids skiing, the youth group release includes the ski area as a released party the signature on the ski area release may cancel the youth group release.

Consideration is the second issue. For a contract to be valid, something of value must flow both ways in the contract. Normally, this means one side gives the other side money, and the other side provides a service or a thing of value. You give a ski area money, and the ski area gives you access to their lifts and ski area. defines Novation as:

2) a vital element in the law of contracts, consideration is a benefit which must be bargained for between the parties, and is the essential reason for a party entering into a contract. Consideration must be of value (at least to the parties), and is exchanged for the performance or promise of performance by the other party (such performance itself is consideration). In a contract, one consideration (thing given) is exchanged for another consideration. Not doing an act (forbearance) can be consideration, such as “I will pay you $1,000 not to build a road next to my fence.” Sometimes consideration is “nominal,” meaning it is stated for form only, such as “$10 as consideration for conveyance of title,” which is used to hide the true amount being paid. Contracts may become unenforceable or rescindable (undone by rescission) for “failure of consideration” when the intended consideration is found to be worth less than expected, is damaged or destroyed, or performance is not made properly (as when the mechanic does not make the car run properly).

Nolo defines Novation as:

A benefit or right for which the parties to a contract must bargain. In order to be valid, a contract must be founded on an exchange of one form of consideration for another. Consideration may be a promise to perform a certain act — for example, a promise to fix a leaky roof in return for a payment of $1,000 — or a promise not to do something, such as build a second story on a house that will block the neighbor’s view (in return for money or something else). Whatever its particulars, consideration must be something of value to the people who are making the contract, even if the value is very low.

Black’s Law Dictionary defines Consideration as:

Something (such as an act, a forbearance, or a return promise) bargained for and received by a promisor from a promisee; that which motivates a person to do something. Consideration or a substitute such as promissory estoppel, is necessary for an agreement to be enforceable.

If you paid your money for the activity in Example, I when you signed up and you do not pay more money when you signed the second release OR what you received when you signed the second release was no different than what you received when you signed the first, there was no consideration or no new consideration. Without new or additional consideration, the second agreement is void.

The second Example is quite interesting based on consideration. If you paid the ski area directly for your lift ticket, then there might not be any consideration for the release you signed with the rec center. If you paid the rec center for the lift ticket and the rec center did not receive any of the money, there might be an issue of consideration to the ski area. The rec center would argue as a non-profit they are not supposed to make money or the taxes paid by the person who signed up covered the consideration.

If the rec center bought 2 dozen tickets from the ski area and paid the ski area and then resold them to the participants, then the ski area release would not have any consideration, and the second release would be void. The contract with consideration was between the rec center and the ski area.

If the rec center took the money and had a guest sign their release, then took the money to the ski area which gave the rec center a lift ticket for the people who had signed up, then there would be a contract between the parties, the guest, the rec center and the ski area, however, whether or not the consideration went the right way and to the right people for the right agreement is best determined by an Ouija board or a judge.

Now, if both contracts are signed at the same time, then the consideration may not be an issue, and novation is not an issue. If you have no choice but to use two releases, then have them signed at the same place at the same time.

The decision in Forman v. Brown, d/b/a Brown’s Royal Gorge Rafting, 944 P.2d 559; 1996 Colo. App. LEXIS 343, the dissent argued that the two different contracts signed at the same time cancelled each other out. One was a release, the second contract  was titled “On River Prohibitions.” The act which caused the injury to the plaintiff in Forman was prohibited in the On River Prohibitions. Because the two contracts were in conflict and the plaintiff was encouraged to jump in the river, the prohibited act, the dissenting judge felt the release was void.

Do Something

If you are an outfitter working with business, programs or non-profits brining groups to you, then offer to have everyone sign your release, (if it is a well-written  release) and specifically include the group, program, business and/or non-profit in your release. You can sell this as a benefit that you have provided them with a well-written document that provides protection for everyone.

If you have your guests, sign releases electronically, then set up your system so you are comfortable with the system, and you know that someone has signed. That means if they have paid, they have signed the release. They can’t pay without signing the release.

You do have a problem then you need to write a new release so that it takes into account the novation and consideration issues in the new agreement. You have a client who swears they sent you a signed release. However, you do not have a copy. Get a paper copy of the release and write on it that the guest is signing the new release because the old one was lost and the consideration for the new release was the $XX paid to go rafting paid on XX day of XXX month 2015. Have the guest sign the release, and the additional language added the release. However, doing this is extremely risky.

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Montana Statute Prohibits Use of a Release




Mont. Code Anno., § 27-1-701 (2012)

27-1-701  Liability for negligence as well as willful acts.

   Except as otherwise provided by law, each person is responsible not only for the results of the person’s willful acts but also for an injury occasioned to another by the person’s want of ordinary care or skill in the management of the person’s property or person except so far as the person has willfully or by want of ordinary care brought the injury upon the person.

28-2-702  Contracts that violate policy of law — exemption from responsibility.

   All contracts that have for their object, directly or indirectly, to exempt anyone from responsibility for the person’s own fraud, for willful injury to the person or property of another, or for violation of law, whether willful or negligent, are against the policy of the law.

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