Release of Liability in Florida Personal Injury Cases

It is important to read liability releases before signing them. However, even people who do read releases may have trouble figuring out what they’re signing. A serious ambiguity in a release may make it unenforceable. On the other hand, other factors may prevent recover, as they did in a recent case involving a release. The case arose when a college football player performed conditioning drills at football practice and immediately thereafter collapsed and died. His parents sued the college and its athletics association for negligence.

A jury found the association liable after a three-week trial, awarding the parents $10 million. The association appealed. It argued that the trial court had denied its motion for summary judgment in error. The motion was brought on the basis of a release in a signed medical examination and authorization waiver and also on the basis of limited sovereign immunity.

The appellate court explained that the only issues were whether the Medical Examination and Authorization Waiver removed liability and whether section 768.28(2) and (5) gave it limited sovereign immunity.

With respect to the release, the court explained that the athletics association required players to acknowledge and represent their physical condition, drug use and use of supplements in the waiver at issue. Part of that waiver included an “Agreement to Participate” that specified the player was aware of the many risks of injury that accompany playing sports. It stated the player would assume all risks and exonerate, save harmless and release the association. It also covered claims by the players’ heirs and family.

The player that died had signed the agreement and stated he understood it. The trial court held that the exculpatory clause was unenforceable as a matter of law. The association appealed, arguing that the clear language should prevail.

The appellate court explained that an exculpatory clause is generally disfavored because they shift risk of injury to a person who is least able to take necessary precautions and avoid injury. In this case, the exculpatory clause didn’t advise the decedent he would be contracting away the right to sue the association for its negligence. Based on the way the release was worded, a reasonable reader could believe the waiver extended only those injuries that were unavoidable after every reasonable precaution had been taken.

Therefore, the appellate court ruled the waiver was ambiguous. As to the claim of limited sovereign immunity, however, the appellate court explained that state agencies are liable for tort claims just as private parties are, but punitive damages and judgments exceeding $200,000 per individual are excluded.

There was no dispute that the college was a state agency. However, the athletic association’s status was at issue. The Florida Supreme Court had stated that where a private corporation acts as an agency of the state, it is included within the cover of limited sovereign immunity.

In this case, the appellate court found that the athletic association was a corporation acting as an instrument of the college. It had been created for the purpose of administering the college’s athletic department. The college controlled the association’s board and had sway over its bylaws. The college had the power to dissolve the association. The appellate court explained that the critical issue was how much governmental control existed over the performance of the corporation.

Accordingly, the appellate court reversed the trial court’s ruling and asked it to conduct proceedings in light of the athletic association’s limited sovereign immunity.

If you are seriously hurt due to somebody else’s negligence, contact the knowledgeable Florida personal injury attorneys at Friedman, Rodman & Frank toll-free for a free consultation at (877) 448-8585.

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