Releases: Using it Properly

Seven-Part Program to Build a Release to Defend your Business/Program/Activity

Releases are also known as “waivers” or “covenants not to sue.” They are also called “allocation of risk” or “transference of risk” documents. Whatever the name, they are an agreement between two parties as to who will assume the cost of injury prior to the injury.

Another type of document called an “Assumption of Risk” document does not provide the complete extent of legal defenses a release provides. However, in states that do not allow the use of a release, or if you are dealing with minors, an assumption of the risk agreement is your best defense. You need to know the difference, know when to use which one and when to combine the two.

A properly written release, which includes assumption of the risk language, used in conjunction with a well-thought-out marketing plan, and post-accident follow-up can stop lawsuits. Your release or waiver is not the only document you need to build a wall of protection around your business or educational program, but it is the most important. The other two are a legal entity protecting your business like an LLC and insurance.

Why include “marketing plan” in a risk-management memo? Because:

Releases will be different for the type of business you run. An outfitter, a business where guides accompany the trip, will have a different release from a livery or canoe rental business where a canoe or equipment is rented for the day. Activities where parents accompany children and maintain control and supervision over children will be different from either an outfitter or a livery release. Some releases may be simple notices of those risks which the participants need to be aware of and those campground rules which are designed to prevent injuries.

Your release will also be different based on the activity, the state where the release will be used, the age of your participants and the risks you want them to assume. No release, if it is to be effective, is going to be like any other release.

You need to understand what type of operation you have, not only from your perspective, but also from your participant’s point of view. What you see as normal or fun may scare your participants. Always look at your world through their eyes.

Releases for product liability issues are a different type of release entirely.

First Line of Defense

The first document your client reads or sees should start the process of preparing the client for the risk, and the fact that he or she will be assuming the risk of the activity. Most times this will be your brochure, marketing letter course catalog or website. Emphasize in these that your company uses a release, and that customers must sign the release before they can participate in an activity or trip. You might want to state there is the possibility that guests can be injured or die during the trip, and that you are not responsible for their injuries or their lost or destroyed personal property. This opening information is the first brick in your wall of protection.

You don’t want an injured guest suing you stating that if they knew about the risk and the release, they would not have gone on the trip or attended your activity.

Second Line of Defense

The next step is to ensure that the release is given to your customers as soon as possible. This may not be possible with walk-in business. However, you should always make the attempt. Put your release on your website so your guests can review it if they go to your website.

Make sure your release and the other documents you use, do not create a conflict or a lawsuit. Do not make promises you cannot keep about the safety of the trip or activity. Doing so can make your release a worthless piece of paper. This can happen if you do not answer questions about your release, or you answer the questions incorrectly. Your staff should also be trained to answer questions correctly and adequately represent the risks involved.

If your release is for a product being purchased, then the release should be given to the customer as you are preparing the product for sale. Give the customer plenty of time to read the release and ask any questions. Placing your release on your website in advance so they can read it, then eliminates the argument, the signor did not have enough time to read and understand the release.’

If you can’t provide the release to a purchaser of your product in advance, then provide an incentive for them to sign the release after they purchase the product. Extend the warranty or send them something that qualifies as consideration to provide value for signing the agreement.

Defense Three: Train your staff in your release

Tell your staff to hand the release to the client with the front up. Ask them to read both sides of the agreement and sign and complete the backside.

If a guest asks if the release is valid, say yes. Tell them the release is significant in keeping your costs down by keeping your insurance at a reasonable amount. A release identifies who is going to pay for any injuries or damages in advance so you do not have to spend time and money litigating this issue later.

Defense Four: Assumption of the Risk

Every release should outline the risk associated with that particular activity. Saying something is dangerous is not enough. You need to specify many of the actual risks for the activity. Remember most of the customers interested in your trip or activities are excited because they have never participated in a trip like yours. As such they may also have no idea what the risks of the activity. They may want to compare your activity to the last thrilling experience they had, an amusement park. You need to explain those risks to them. Many companies do this in a “safety talk.” Educational institutions do this at pre-trip meetings or briefings. Trying to impress a jury with what was said in a meeting or on the side of a river can be daunting. Your release can help prove your clients knew and understood the risk they were about to undertake.

Rental agreements can be interpreted several different ways by the courts. If you believe you are running a pure rental operation, your documents can be significantly different from a rental operation the courts consider an outfitter. Review your operation with your attorney to make sure your attorney understands your business and which interpretation the courts will apply.

Assumption of Risk – Defense Five and Your First Step Your Risk-Management Program

If you have the opportunity to use a release, then the following information will be included in your release and incorporate the risks of the activity to be assumed by your guest. If you do not have the opportunity to use a release because of state law, then you will be using an assumption of risk document.

Assumption of Risk is a legal defense that can be used to win a lawsuit or substantially reduce the damages of a lawsuit. It may also be the only line of defense with minors. As such Assumption or Acknowledgment of the Risk (ASSUMPTION OF THE RISK) plays an important role in your business.

The legal effect and how an assumption of the risk and Contributor Negligence is used in the Courtroom are substantially different. However, from a non-lawyer perspective, there is little difference between the doctrines.

Contributory Negligence is an argument based upon the facts at trial where the jury decides if the Plaintiff’s or injured parties actions contributed to his injuries. If the Plaintiff knew about the risks and still acted or refused to act causing his injuries, he contributed to his injuries, and his damages are reduced by his percentage of his contribution to his injury. Assumption of Risk is used here because the idea is well defined by the words. In addition, when your clients truly know and understand the risk, they are less likely to be injured, let alone start a lawsuit.

Assumption of Risk must be proved by you to win a lawsuit. You will need to prove that your client knew and understood the risk they were about to undertake. Not only must they know which things were dangerous; they needed to know how dangerous. For example, most people know traveling to third-world countries may be dangerous. However, do most Americans really understand you can die from what Americans would consider a minor illness or injury. Medical care in Third-World countries can be substandard to the care someone would receive in America. Consequently, this two-step knowledge can be difficult to prove in some instances. It requires an affirmative set of actions to move this knowledge and understanding to the level necessary to win a lawsuit.

Most of us identify the obvious risk of a sport. Water activities we identify drowning, rock climbing we understand falling, and winter camping, freezing. However, a substantial amount of the injuries’ Outdoor Recreation arise away from the main activity. Side hikes while rafting are the major cause of injuries in the Grand Canyon. A large percentage of the injuries in rock climbing occur when items fall on the climber, or they fall hiking to the climb. Study the injuries you clients receive and make sure the most common, no matter how trivial, are listed in your assumption of risk document or release, as well as the most horrendous.

The easiest way to prove your clients knew and understood the risk is to put that information in writing and have your clients acknowledge they read those risks in the document. Some states require the information concerning the risk to be a component of a release. As such, your release should always contain language outlining the risks of the activity. Judges frequently comment on the fact the injury sustained by the Plaintiff was specifically identified in the release or assumption of risk document.

Remember that any document or video your clients read or view can be used to prove they understood the risks. Your release, promotional information, pictures in the office or videos are important. To prove the clients knew and accepted the risk several companies or industries have developed videos to show to clients before they undertake the activity. A video has proven to be extremely important in preventing possible lawsuits. It is difficult to sue, when the actions that injured the Plaintiff were identified visually and audibly as something not to do. Add to that the release identified the risk and stated the client had seen the video. This is a fairly iron clad wall against an invasion by injured customers. To see examples of these, OARS the whitewater rafting and adventure travel company, has a complete set of videos on the risks of rafting at: http://rec-law.us/NvHtqu

Defense Six: Understand the Risk from Your Client’s Perspective

To prepare your clients for the risk, you need to evaluate the risk in advance. Do this from your client’s perspective, not from your own. Gather information on what the actual risks of the activity are. Ask your insurance company for a list of the claims they have had over the past several years. Look at the accidents you have had over the life of your company, and that may be peculiar to your operation, where you are operating, or your clients. Finally, always include the worst-case scenario in your release, even if that chance is remote such as paralysis, death, mental anguish, or trauma.

You will be able to explain the risks to them, so they understand, not just what you believe are the risks.

Because assumption of risk is a personal question to be examined by the judge and jury, you need to make the knowledge personal. Use the examples included here as a starting point to build a risk statement for your operation.

Defense 7: The Wall is up, Don’t Tear it Down.

Your wall of defense consists of multiple blocks that inform your guests of the risks they are going to undertake and who will pay for any injury they may encounter. The final Defense in your defense wall is how you deal with your guests after they have been injured. If you have done a good job of informing your guests of the risks, then they should be mentally prepared to accept the fact the injury was probably their fault and their responsibility. However, right after an injury is not the time to bring that up.

You want to treat an injured guest the same way you treated them before their injury. Nothing has changed. They are still a guest who can pay your more money for another trip or send you referrals with their good word. Treat them the way you treat everyone. Be attentive, help them and their family. Follow up and remain their friend.

Moss Maxims: Ideas to Remember when dealing with Guests

10 Signs of Great Risk Management    http://rec-law.us/sUzpHT

7 Mistakes Made by People who are called Defendant    http://rec-law.us/stli09

Crisis Response    http://rec-law.us/ul6Nrl

Reasons Why People Sue    http://rec-law.us/uZ5RKR

Ten Commandments of Dealing with People in a Crisis    http://rec-law.us/KoI8Xo

Additional Articles on Why People Sue

It’s Not Money    http://rec-law.us/zxmmqy

Serious Disconnect: Why people sue.    http://rec-law.us/wm2cBn

Why do people sue? Not for the money.    http://rec-law.us/A0866T

A Church wants to apologize and the insurance company for the church panics. What else would you expect a church to do?    http://rec-law.us/zI0FUI

Great article on why some corporate apologies fall short and they are not sincere    http://rec-law.us/xb1uVb

Her life is permanently changed, but she really wants an apology    http://rec-law.us/yHjVn0

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


A well-written release is not enough; you have to present it to the participant in a way that the participant knows what they are signing.

Then you have to present the information to the court, so the court clearly sees what the participant saw, same size, same way, same color.

Citation: Scotti and Russo v. Tough Mudder Incorporated and Tough Mudder Event Production Incorporated, 97 N.Y.S.3d 825, 63 Misc.3d 843

State: New York; Supreme Court of New York, Kings

Plaintiff: Richard E. Scotti and Joseph Russo

Defendant: Tough Mudder Incorporated and Tough Mudder Event Production Incorporated

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Arbitration Agreement and Release

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2019

Summary

A release is not a piece of paper to be written on a whim and thrown on line. Here the court blasted the defendant because the release was presented on-line in a bad way, and it was presented in court in a worse way.

Releases, Indemnification Agreements, Arbitration Agreements, etc., must be noticed to the consumer. Meaning the consumer MUST understand they are signing a legal agreement, they have to them be used online in a way that the consumer or guest has no doubt that they are signing one, and you must be able to prove that.

Besides, New York does not allow the use of a release!

Facts

The plaintiffs were both injured in a Tough Mudder event on the salmon ladder. The plaintiff’s sued and the defendant Tough Mudder answered and filed this motion to compel arbitration. The release contained an arbitration clause.

The release signed by the participants was signed online. The participants went through a registration page, part of which was a window where the release was contained. To read the release, you had to scroll through the window separately from the rest of the page. The release was in a window in the page.

The defendant attempted to prove the release was valid by presenting an affidavit of the Manager of Customer relations and black-and-white copies of the page and a separate copy of the release. The court did not have a copy of the page as it was seen by the participants.

Below the box containing the scrollable PWCR was another box next to the statement: “I agree to the above waiver.” Best avers that it was necessary for the plaintiffs, or any other registrant, to click on the box to indicate his or her consent to the PWCR in order for the registrant to complete his or her registration for the TM Event. According to Best, the internet registration form cannot proceed to the payment page, and registration cannot be completed, until the registrant checks the box indicating his or her consent to the PWCR. She further avers that both plaintiffs did in fact click on the box indicating their consent to the PWCR, as otherwise they would not have been able to participate in the TM Event. Based upon the foregoing, Tough Mudder contends that the plaintiffs agreed to the terms of the on-line waiver, which included the arbitration clause and, therefore, are barred from pursuing the instant action

The box that held the release did not show the entire document unless the reader scrolled through the center window. What the court received in its copy of the page, obviously only showed the small part of the release that was visible when the page was printed.

The agreement was labeled:

ASSUMPTION OF RISK, WAIVER OF LIABILITY, AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT PARTICIPANTS: READ THIS DOCUMENT CAREFULLY BEFORE ACCEPTING. THIS DOCUMENT HAS LEGAL CONSEQUENCES AND WILL AFFECT YOUR LEGAL RIGHTS AND WILL ELIMINATE YOUR ABILITY TO BRING FUTURE LEGAL ACTIONS

Not identified in the heading and located several pages into the release was an arbitration provision.

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

The judge shredded the defense in an efficient point by point denial of the defendant’s defenses for two reasons. They did a lousy job of setting up the documents to be signed online, and they did a worse job of presenting that information to the court.

The court first looked at the motion to compel arbitration. To compel arbitration the party wanting arbitration must:

It is well settled that “[a] party to an agreement may not be compelled to arbitrate its dispute with another unless the evidence establishes the parties’ clear, explicit and unequivocal agreement to arbitrate”. When one party seeks to compel the other to arbitrate any disputes between them, the court must first determine whether the parties made a valid arbitration agreement. The party seeking arbitration bears the burden of establishing that an agreement to arbitrate exists

Whether or not the online agreement was valid is based on the specific facts of the situation.

The question of whether there is agreement to accept the terms of an on-line contract turns on the particular facts and circumstances. Courts generally look for evidence that a website user had actual or constructive notice of the terms by using the website. Where the person’s alleged consent is solely online, courts seek to determine whether a reasonably prudent person would be put on notice of the provision in the contract, and whether the terms of the agreement were reasonably communicated to the user

The court then went into an analysis of the four types of online consumer contracts: “(a) browsewrap; (b) clickwrap; (c) scrollwrap; and (d) sign-in-wrap.” Each type of agreement has different requirements to be valid.

Browsewrap exists where the online host dictates that assent is given merely by using the site. Clickwrap refers to the assent process by which a user must click “I agree,” but not necessarily view the contract to which she is assenting. Scrollwrap requires users to physically scroll through an internet agreement and click on a separate “I agree” button in order to assent to the terms and conditions of the host website. Sign-in-wrap couples assent to the terms of a website with signing up for use of the site’s services….

The court then found, because the defendants’ document was so bad, that this agreement was a clickwrap agreement. Since the printed copy of the webpage only showed a small part of the release, the court found it could only be a clickwrap agreement.

Here, the PWCR at issue appears to be a click-wrap agreement as identified in Berkson in that the clickable box is located directly below the scrollable text box that allegedly contained the full text of the agreement. Only by scrolling down in the text box would the user see all of the terms of the PWCR, including the arbitration clause at issue. However, the user could proceed to complete the registration process without necessarily scrolling down through the text box to view the full document, thereby rendering it a click-wrap agreement. At oral argument, counsel for defendants claimed that it was a scrollwrap agreement, as it was not possible to click “I agree” without scrolling through the agreement, but there is nothing in the record to support this claim.

For clickwrap agreements to be valid:

A party may be bound to a click wrap agreement by clicking a button declaring assent, so long as the party is given a “sufficient opportunity to read the … agreement, and assents thereto after being provided with an unambiguous method of accepting or declining the offer.”

“[a] court cannot presume that a person who clicks on a box that appears on a … screen has notice of all contents not only of that page but of other content that requires further action (scrolling, following a link, etc.) … The presentation of the online agreement matters: Whether there was notice of the existence of additional contract terms presented on a webpage depends heavily on whether the design and content of that webpage rendered the existence of terms reasonably conspicuous…. Clarity and conspicuousness of arbitration terms are important in securing informed assent.”

Thus, on a motion to compel arbitration, a valid agreement to arbitrate exists where the notice of the arbitration provision was reasonably conspicuous, and manifestation

The court simply found the “plaintiffs did not have actual notice of the arbitration provision at issue in this case.

As cited in a recent decision, Corwin v. NYC Bike Share, LLC, 238 F.Supp.3d 475 (S.D.N.Y. 2017) “a user’s clicking of a box is not, without more, sufficient to signal their assent to any contract term. The touchstone in most courts’ analysis of the enforceability of clickwrap contracts turns on whether the website provided ‘reasonably conspicuous notice that [users] are about to bind themselves to contract terms’ ”

For the online agreement to be valid, the agreement must:

First, terms of use should not be enforced if a reasonably prudent user would not have had at the very least inquiry notice of the terms of the agreement. Second, terms should be enforced when a user is encouraged by the design and content of the website and the agreement’s webpage to examine the terms, such as when they are clearly available through a hyperlink. Third terms should not be enforced when they are “buried at the bottom of a webpage or tucked away in obscure corners.”

The courts review of what was presented to the court was simple and a slam against the defendants.

Here, the court finds that Tough Mudder has failed to establish that the webpage, as it existed in 2016 when the plaintiffs registered for the TM Event, provided reasonable notice of the relevant term (the arbitration provision) of the PWCR. In fact, Tough Mudder has failed to set forth sufficiently detailed evidence as to how its on-line registration webpage appeared to the plaintiffs, or other users/registrants, during the relevant time period.

And then the court piled on the defense for doing a lousy job of presenting the information to the court.

In addition, the court notes that the purported copies of the plaintiffs’ respective on-line registration forms (screen shots) submitted by Tough Mudder (Exhibit D) are black and white copies of poor quality, the text of which is in an extremely small font size and is barely legible. Tough Mudder has not proffered any color copies of any screen shots depicting its on-line registration process.

The court stated the important sections of the agreement needed to be identified so anyone reading the agreement would understand the importance of those sections. The court pointed out the heading identified the agreement as a release, but did not identify the agreement as containing an arbitration clause.

The court then slammed the door shut on the release itself because it violated GOL § 5-326.

§ 5-326. Agreements exempting pools, gymnasiums, places of public amusement or recreation and similar establishments from liability for negligence void and unenforceable

The court threw out both the release, and the arbitration clause within the release. In a footnote, the court stated it’s holding was in line with other decisions.

[1] It seems defendants conduct similar events all over the United States. There are two other actions pending in Kings County Supreme Court against defendants, and in both actions, defendants motions to compel arbitration were denied, albeit on different grounds.

So Now What?

This was not a case where the court wanted to make sure the defendant lost. This was a case where the defendant did a lousy job.

Microsoft gets away with this type of release and online crap because they are offering contracts where damages are the contract value; what you are paying for the software.

When you are dealing with torts, where thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars are on then a simple click or shrink wrap agreement will not suffice.

Create this page in such a way you can show it to the court.

Then have a click at the bottom that states the participant understands they are giving up certain legal rights. Then have the participant click to go to the payment page. The credit card information verifies the participant is who they say they are because of the credit card agreements.

Finally, when you send the person their receipt for signing up for the event, include a paragraph stating they also signed a release and possible a link to the release.

Quit hiding legal documents and put them out there and in front of your participants, guests and customers.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2019 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

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By Recreation Law    Rec-law@recreation-law.com    James H. Moss

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RELEASE (Waiver) CHECKLIST: What MUST your Release contain to work

If you are getting ready for your summer recreation business it is always a good idea to make sure your paperwork is up to date and ready to go. This is a checklist to help you check your release and make sure your release is doing more than wasting paper.

Not all of these clauses mentioned in the checklist may be needed. However, some of them are critical and they may all be modified based on your activity, program, employees, and ability to undertake the risks. Some changes are always needed based on your activities, your guests and the state or local you are working in.

I’ve divided this checklist into three major parts:

  • Required for your Release to be Valid: What is absolutely required
  • Needed: What you should have for your release to be valid in most states
  • What Your Release Cannot Have: What you should never have in your document

There are some subsections also that are fairly self-explanatory. This will probably not be in all releases, but may be required in your release based on what you are trying to accomplish or what you are doing.

Required for your Release to be Valid

Contract: A release is a contract. The legal requirements required in your state for your electronic or piece of paper release to be a contract.

Notice of Legal Document: Does your release someplace on its face, give notice to the person signing it that they are signing a release or a legal document? Courts want to see that the guest knew they were giving up some legal rights.

Parties: You have to identify who is to be protected by the release and who the release applies too. That means the correct legal names as well as any business name.

Assumption of Risk Language: Does your release contain language that explains the risk of the activities the release is designed to protect litigation against. This is any area that is growing in release law.

Agreement to Assume Risks: Do your release have language that states the signor agrees to assume the risk. Assumption of the Risk is the second defense after your release in stopping a lawsuit.

Magic Word: Negligence: Does your release have the signor give up their right to sue for negligence? The required language and how it must be explained is getting more specific in all states and yet is different in most states.

Plain Language: Is the release written so that it can be understood? Is it written in plain English?

Venue: Does your release have a Venue Clause?

Jurisdiction: Does your release have a Jurisdiction Clause?

Signatures: Does your release have a place for the signor to date and sign the release. For a contract to be valid it must have a signature, or if electronic acknowledgment.

Continuing Duty to Inform: Information to complete the continuing duty to inform for manufacturers

 

Items that may be Needed Dependent upon the Purpose of the Release

Parental Release: Signature of Parent or Guardian AND correct legal language signing away a minor’s right to sue.

Statement the Signor has conveyed the necessary information to minor child

Statement the Signor will continue to convey necessary information to a minor child

Reference to any Required Statute

Signor has viewed the Website

Signor has viewed the Videos

Signor has read the additional information

Notice the Release is a Legal Document:

Notice of Legal Consequence: Does your release state there may be legal consequences to the signor upon signing?

Opening/Introduction: Does your release have an opening or introduction explaining its purpose

Assumption of Risk Language

Minor Injuries Noticed

Major Injuries Noticed

Death

Mental Trauma

Signor is Capable of Assuming Risks

Risks identified that are not normally Not Associated with Activity

Drug & Alcohol Statement

Company Right to Eject/Refuse

Signor is in Good Physical Condition

Able to Undertake the activity

Good Mental Condition

Release Protects Against

Lost Personal Property

Lost Money

Lost Time

Loss of Life

Medical Bills

Injuries

Indemnification Clause

First party costs

Third party costs

Severance Clause

Enforceability of the Release Post Activity

 

Language Dependent on How the Release is to be Used

Product Liability Language

Release of Confidential Medical Information

Demo Language

Rental Agreement Clause

SAR & Medical Issues

Permission to release medical information

Medical Evacuation

Medical Release

Medical Transportation

Waiver of medical confidentiality

Waiver of HIV status

Alternative Resolution

Arbitration

Mediation

Items I include in the releases I write

How Release is to be interpreted

Statement as to Insurance

Signor has Adequate Insurance

Incidental issues covered

Signor has Previous Experience

Signor Read and Understood the Contract

Agreement that the document has been read

Agreement that the signor agrees to the terms

What Your Release Cannot Have

Places to Initial: This just requires more effort on your staff to check and is not legally required.

Small Print: If a judge can’t read it, then it does not exist.

Attempting to Hide your Release: You attempt to hide your release; the judge will act like he or she never found it. The below are all examples of attempting to hide a release.

No heading or indication of the legal nature

Release Hidden within another document

Important sections with no heading or not bolded: No hiding your release

Multiple pages that are not associated with each other: splitting up your release is hiding it.

No indication or notice of the rights the signor is giving up: Some day the statement I did not understand it will resonate with a judge. This prevents that.

Most Importantly, had your Release Updated Recently

Has your release been reviewed by an attorney in the past year or do you work with an attorney that updates you on changes you need to make to your release? The law concerning releases is changing constantly, more now than ever before. In the past two years I’ve made a dozen tweaks to how I write a release based on those legal changes. If your release has not been updated, you may no longer have a release.

Remember: Nothing in your marketing program invalidates your release. Does your marketing not create liability not covered in your release? Is your marketing directed to the correct people that your release was written for?