The Florida Supreme Court, in an important decision, has changed the way that so-called exculpatory clauses are interpreted. Its decision unfortunately broadens the effectiveness of these agreements, and thus, makes it harder for those catastrophically injured by the negligence of a business, or while on a business premises, to recover damages.
Exculpatory clauses are the contracts that you often sign that purport to waive any liability for the business for any injury that you sustain. They are often used on cruises, in gyms, in kids play areas, and in extreme sports. Simply put, you are agreeing not to sue the business if you’re injured when you’re there, or taking part in an activity.
Mother Injured on Vacation Starts Dispute Over Liability Release
The Sanislo family took their daughter on a vacation, provided by a non-profit organization that provided “dream” vacations for sick or disabled children. Part of the vacation included a horse carriage ride. The ride had a lift, where wheelchairs could be lifted into the carriages. The mother of the injured girl stood on the lift while the wheelchair was on it, and the lift broke due to excess weight, injuring the mother.
The vacation company required the family to sign a comprehensive exculpatory clause before they went on vacation. The clause made them agree not to sue for any injuries that occurred for any reason. The agreement did not specifically say that the Sanislos could not sue in the event of the vacation company’s own negligence.
Because that language wasn’t there, the Sanislos argued, and the trial court agreed, the release did not bar their suit. A verdict was entered in favor of the Sanislos, and an appeal ensued.
Court Interprets What the Release Covers
At the appeal, the company argued that although the agreement didn’t specifically include exculpation for the company’s own negligence acts, the language of the agreement was clear enough and broad enough to cover such negligence. Thus, they argued, the verdict should be overturned, and the Sanislos forbidden from recovering anything.
The appellate court acknowledged that these kinds of releases are not favored by public policy. The court also agreed that the law has long required specific language releasing negligence to be in these agreements, but also said that the exact word “negligence” wasn’t required for an exculpation clause to be effective. The court felt that if the Sanislos release didn’t include release of negligent claims, it would be effectively useless because there would be nothing else to release.
Under a basic contractual analysis, the exculpatory clause was clear, unambiguous, and the intent of the parties was to release liability for negligent acts, even if the word “negligence” wasn’t actually specifically used.
Decision May Make Many Releases Enforceable
The court did say that this did not mean that any exculpatory clause would be enforceable, and that such agreements still had to be specific and clear to be enforceable. Still, the decision now leaves a huge opening for businesses to use releases, often containing confusing or ambiguous language, to defend liability cases on the basis of these kinds of agreements.
Agreements that you sign could make it more difficult to sue for injuries. Make sure you have attorneys that know how to read, interpret and counter, these kinds of releases. Talk to the Miami personal injury attorneys at Gerson & Schwartz, P.A. today for a free consultation about your injury case.