The Florida Supreme Court ruled this week (Thursday December 11) that parents cannot waive the liability for their children when they participate in a sport. The 4-1 ruling clears the way for Florida wrongful death litigation against a motor sports track in Okeechobee County.
The issue began with the death of 14-year old Christopher Jones on May 10, 2003 at the Thunder Cross Motor Sports Park. Christopher took a jump and the ATV landed on top of him.
Chris was there with his father Bobby Jones, who was the custodial parent of Christopher because he was divorced from the boy’s mother Bette. Bobby Jones and his sons enjoyed racing all terrain vehicles (ATVs) and Christopher had been at the track before to race.
Before he could race, the park required Bobby Jones to sign a Waiver of Liability. One had been signed the day of the Florida ATV accident. The release included specific language that waived any claims based on the negligence of the track. It also says that the parents realized the dangerous nature of the activity and the risk of injury or death.
Christopher’s mother Bette later filed a wrongful death lawsuit in Florida claiming the park owners and manager were negligent. The suit was dismissed though because her ex-husband had sign the release form. The trial court decided essentially that a parent can waive the personal injury rights of his minor child.
But on appeal, the Fourth District Court of Appeal said there was nothing in state law that allowed a parent to waive all legal rights on behalf of their minor child.
That decision conflicted with a previous ruling that upheld the waivers. When there is a conflict in lower court rulings, that’s when the issue lands before the state Supreme Court to work out the differences.
So now, five years after his death, the parents of Christopher can pursue their lawsuit against the track in Okeechobee County. Bette says she wants other parents to be aware of the dangers of ATVs and that’s why she’s stuck with it so long.
The decision is an important one and has many different applications since participation in sports often requires waivers. A parent may be able to waive their own rights – but not that of their minor child. With this decision, the waivers are essentially worth the paper they’re written on.