Release of Liability form is ineffective
August 16, 2007
Last month the California Supreme Court changed the law when it deemed ineffective a standard Release of Liability signed by the mother of a developmentally disabled 14-year-old who drowned while participating in a Santa Barbara summer camp for disabled children.
14-year-old Katie Janeway suffered from epilepsy, cerebral palsy, and other severe disabilities. She participated in Santa Barbara’s Adventure Camp for several years.
Each year her family signed a release exempting the City of Santa Barbara of future liability arising from Katie’s camp activities-even if the city was negligent-not performing “as a reasonable person would do under the circumstances.”
During the summer session in 2002 Katie was shadowed by a special education aide, who, despite special training and extremely attentive care, momentarily turned her attention away from Katie while she was swimming. Katie drowned.
Katie’s parents filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Santa Barbara claiming Katie’s death was caused by the City’s negligence. The City defended based upon the signed release.
Normally a well-drafted Release of Liability form is effective to protect from lawsuits, even if someone is negligent, unless the negligent party, in this case the City, is willful or fraudulent.
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While it is against California law to exempt yourself from liability for your own fraud or willful injury to someone else, protecting from lawsuits with signed releases, even if the active party is negligent, is the norm, even when strong public interests are involved, such as an adventure camp for disabled youth.
In what I would consider a remarkable decision, our Supreme Court ruled the City’s release to be ineffective even though it is the type of release that has been upheld a thousand times in similar situations.
A majority of the Court wrote what can only be described as a bizarre opinion, concluding that while there is no cause of action for “gross negligence” in California, Katie’s unfortunate death may have resulted from the City’s gross negligence; and as a matter of public policy no one should be released from his or her own gross negligence, thus the release is void. Wow.
Gross negligence, which again does not exist in California, is apparently something between ordinary negligence and willful or fraudulent behavior.
Katie’s family may proceed with its lawsuit against Santa Barbara.
Three justices agreed with the majority decision but limited the ruling to cases involving a strong public interest, such as a recreational summer camp for children with disabilities.
The sole dissenting justice, Baxter, with whom I think I agree, wrote that if standard releases are not effective in Katie-type situations, municipalities like Santa Barbara will discontinue their high-risk recreational programs because of the fear of lawsuits.
It is not easy to balance the interests of the public in having publicly funded recreation services versus the interests of the public in not allowing reckless or willful misconduct to go unpunished, but I feel the court got this one wrong.
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