PLEASE RELEASE ME
It’s not what you know, it’s who you know… That’s what the people looking for a break were saying in the late days of the Trump Administration these days. Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen got released from federal prison early because of COVID-19. Previously, we’ve seen Rod Blagojevich, Michael Milken, Eddie DeBartolo, and, of course, Sheriff Joe, Sholom Rubashkin, an obscure sailor whose offense of being sloppy with secret material was seen as less serious than Hillary’s, a dead boxer, and a right-wing writer who was prosecuted by Presidential enemy Preet Bharara for campaign law violations. The late-term clemency beneficiaries included Presidential once-and-future buddies like Steve Bannon, Michael Flynn, Roger Stone, and Lil Wayne.
It’s no wonder the current White House resident has decided to keep a light thumb on the clemency button for now.
This might be a good time to talk about releases… not the Presidential kind, but rather the kinds of prospective releases or liability waivers that are a part of our lives, from amusement parks and ski resorts to pools to dry cleaners to parking lots and hat checks. We get little tickets that have fine print on the back stating that by using whatever service we’re using, we agree that we can’t hold the vendor liable if anything goes wrong. Our fedora’s missing from the hatcheck? Too bad. Our pants have a hole burned in them from being pressed? Maybe we can cut them off and make shorts. The roller coaster collapses and crushes us to death? Sorry, pal, guess this just ain’t your day, and tomorrow doesn’t look very good, either.
Certainly, such releases serve an important purpose, being crucial grease on the cogs of commerce. You can find websites that let you “roll your own” liability waiver form for whatever event you have planned with just a few clicks. But the proliferation of such releases has to leave us wondering – first, are all these liability waivers enforceable? And second, can we use prospective waivers in the arboriculture industry — such as “by hiring me to trim your tree, you release me of liability if I make it fall on your Yugo” — to absolve ourselves from liability?
A California court grappled with such a release when a developmentally disabled child drowned at a city-run camp for such children. The girl’s mother had signed a release from liability – parents sign those forms all the time, and whoever reads them? – but the trial court and the court of appeals held the release would not release the City from liability for gross negligence. The Supreme Court of California agreed, holding that an agreement to release future liability for negligence in recreational activities could not, as a matter of law, release the City or the employee from liability for gross negligence.
The case includes a detailed review of the history of such releases, and a rationale for determining which types of releases are enforceable, and which are not. Generally, a prospective release may not relieve a grantee of any obligation to meet even a rudimentary standard of care. If Santa Barbara had written its release to relieve it of liability for simple negligence, the release probably would have been valid. But it wrote it too broadly, to release it from any negligence, even gross negligence or recklessness. That was too much for the Court.
In other words, little piggies go back to the trough, but big piggies get slaughtered.
City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court, 62 Cal.Rptr.3d 527, 41 Cal.4th 747, 161 P.3d 1095 (S.Ct.Cal., 2007). The City of Santa Barbara provided extensive summer recreational facilities and activities for children, including a camp for children with developmental disabilities called Adventure Camp. Katie Janeway, who suffered from cerebral palsy and epilepsy participated in the camp. Swimming activities were held on two of five camp days each week in a City swimming pool.
The application form for Adventure Camp included a release of all claims against the City and its employees from liability, including liability based upon negligence, arising from camp activities.
Katie’s mother signed the release in 2002, as she had in prior years. She also told the City about Katie’s disabilities, specifically that the girl was prone to seizures in the water, and that Katie needed supervision while swimming. The City knew the child had suffered such seizures in the past, and camp administrators took special precautions during the Adventure Camp swimming activities in 2002, assigning a special, trained counselor to keep Katie under close observation during the camp’s swimming sessions.
Katie participated in the first swimming day at the 2002 Adventure Camp without incident. On the second swimming day she drowned. About an hour before drowning, Katie had suffered a mild seizure that lasted a few seconds. Her counselor observed the seizure and sent another counselor to report the incident to a supervisor. The supervisor said that the report never was received. Katie’s counselor watched her for 45 minutes following the mild seizure, and then — receiving no word from her supervisor — let Katie go ahead with swimming. Malong concluded that the seizure had run its course and that it was safe for Katie to swim. As Katie dove into the water for the second time that day, the counselor momentarily turned her attention away from Katie. When she looked back no more than 15 seconds later, Katie had disappeared. After the counselor and others looked for Katie for between two and five minutes, an air horn blew and the pool was evacuated. Lifeguards pulled Katie from the bottom of the pool, and she died the next day.
Katie’s parents filed a wrongful death action alleging the accident was caused by the negligence of the City. Relying upon the release, the City moved unsuccessfully for summary judgment. Failing in this, the City appealed, and the appellate court denied the petition, holding the agreement was effective and enforceable insofar as it concerned liability for future ordinary negligence, but concluding that a release of liability for future gross negligence is generally unenforceable, and the release form did not validly release any liability.
The Supreme Court granted review.
Held: The City’s release was invalid to the extent it purported to apply to future gross negligence. The Court observed that “ordinary negligence,” an unintentional tort, consists of a failure to exercise the degree of care in a given situation that a reasonable person under similar circumstances would employ to protect others from harm. “Gross negligence,” on the other hand, is a want of even scant care or an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct. A signed release absolving the City and its employees from liability for “any negligent act” in its operation of a recreational program for disabled children violated public policy and was thus unenforceable, to the extent it purported to release liability for future gross negligence. Therefore, the Janeways were not precluded from pursuing wrongful death action.
The Court said that public policy generally precludes enforcement of agreements that would remove the obligation to adhere to even a minimal standard of care. Courts may, in appropriate circumstances, void contracts on the basis of public policy, the determination of which resides first with the people as expressed in the California Constitution and second with the state legislature. The power of the courts to declare a contract void for being in contravention of sound public policy is a very delicate and undefined power and should be exercised only in cases free from doubt. Nevertheless, the Court said, courts are authorized to distinguish ordinary negligence from gross negligence, even absent express legislative authorization.
The Court grudgingly seemed to accept that waivers of liability for future ordinary negligence – at least in recreational or sports contexts – would be enforceable. However, California does not permit a waiver of liability for future aggravated negligence. For that matter, neither do an overwhelming number of other states.
Whether this holding might have applicability before recreational and sports activities, such as in “inherently dangerous” activities such as tree removal, is up in the air. While this shouldn’t dissuade an arborist or tree removal company from including a carefully-drawn and limited waiver in the contract, neither should the professional bank on the waiver being enforced.
– Tom Root