As back-to-school time approaches, and fall sports start up, most parents are confronted with a stack of forms to sign. These forms list our kids’ allergies, grant permission to treat them in emergencies–and often, attempt to limit lawsuits by releasing school districts, coaches and youth leagues from liability in the event a child is injured.
But are those releases effective? What happens if a child is injured through the negligence of a school or sports organization? The answers may surprise you, because in most cases, this type of release will indeed bar a claim for negligence. And in the case of most youth sports organizations, the claim may be barred even if the parent hasn’t signed a release.
In Sharon v. City of Newton, 437 Mass. 99 (2002), a high school student and her father both signed a release of liability to permit her to participate as a member of the school cheerleading squad. She was injured while practicing a cheerleading stunt, and brought suit against the school district and the coach for negligence. The Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the pre-injury release of liability was enforceable, and barred her claim. The Court felt that voluntary participation in athletics is an important feature of school life, and that the enforcement of this type of release would encourage school districts to make these activities available to their students. The Court also held that the father could effectively release his daughter’s right to sue.
And even in the absence of a release, most youth sports organizations and coaches cannot be sued for negligence. A statute, G.L. c.231 s.85V, immunizes coaches and other volunteers involved with youth sports programs from liability for ordinary negligence or carelessness in operating the program or activity. The statute does preserve liability for injuries occurring while transporting the participants, or injuries occurring because of negligence in the care or maintenance of real estate or attached structures.
There are some exceptions to these laws. For example, in most cases, a pre-injury release will not bar claims for reckless conduct, gross negligence, or intentional actions. The release may not be effective if participation in the activity was required rather than optional. And a release that would defeat the purpose of consumer protection statutes may likewise be ineffective.
But the bottom line is that many of those forms that parents sign without much thought have real legal significance.