The Florida Supreme Court in a non-construction case recently issued an opinion regarding the scope of a release. Parties expecting releases (“releasee”) need to ensure that the release they are giving others to execute (“releaser”) clearly and unambiguously reflects the scope of the release they are seeking. Regardless of the reasoning for getting a release, the release will not serve the releasee’s purpose if it is ambiguous.
In Eric Sanislo v. Give Kids the World, Inc., 2015 WL 569119 (Fla. 2015), the Florida Supreme Court answered the question whether a release that does not contain express language of the releaser releasing the releasee for negligence or negligent acts was enforceable to actually release the releasee for negligence claims.
This case involved a non-profit company that organizes vacations for sick children and their families. In advance of the vacation participants need to execute a release in favor of the non-profit company that reads:
I/we hereby release Give Kids the World, Inc. [releasee] and all of its agents, officers, directors, servants, and employees from any liability whatsoever in connection with the preparation, execution, and fulfillment of said wish, on behalf of ourselves, the above named wish child and all other participants. The scope of this release shall include, but not be limited to, damages or losses or injuries encountered in connection with transportation, food, lodging, medical concerns (physical and emotional), entertainment, photographs and physical injury of any kind….
I/we further agree to hold harmless and to release Give Kids the World, Inc. [releasee] from and against any and all claims and causes of action of every kind arising from any and all physical or emotional injuries and/or damages which may happen to me/us….
During a vacation, the mother of a child injured herself due to a malfunction of a wheelchair lift they were on. The family sued for negligence and the non-profit organization argued that such a negligence claim was barred by virtue of the release the family executed that released the non-profit company “from any liability whatsoever…” which would be broadly understood to include all negligence claims. The non-profit further argued if the release did not cover negligence claims, it would essentially be worthless since the obvious intent of the release was to bar these types of claims. Conversely, the family argued that the release did not bar negligent acts because nowhere in the release does it even use the words “negligence” or “negligent acts.”
The Florida Supreme Court agreed with the non-profit company and the broad language that released the non-profit company “from any liability whatsoever…” expounding:
[W]e are reluctant to hold that all exculpatory [release] clauses that are devoid of the terms “negligence” or “negligent acts” are ineffective to bar a negligence action despite otherwise clear and unambiguous language indicating an intent to be relieved from liability in such circumstances. Application of such a bright-line and rigid rule would tend to not effectuate the intent of the parties and render such contracts otherwise meaningless.
The wish request form and liability release form signed by the Sanislos [plaintiff] released Give Kids the World [non-profit company] and all of its agents, officers, directors, servants, and employees from “any liability whatsoever in connection with the preparation, execution, and fulfillment of said wish….” The language of the agreement then provided that the scope of the agreement included “damages or losses or injuries encountered in connection with transportation, food, lodging, medical concerns (physical and emotional), entertainment, photographs and physical injury of any kind….” This agreement clearly conveys that Give Kids the World would be released from any liability, including negligence, for damages, losses, or injuries due to transportation, food, lodging, entertainment, and photographs. With regard to Give Kids the World and the wish fulfilled for the Sanislos, it is unclear what this agreement would cover if not the negligence of Give Kids the World and its agents, officers, directors, servants, and employees, given that exculpatory clauses are unenforceable to release a party of liability for an intentional tort.
What exactly does this ruling mean?
It means, be careful, really careful, when executing a release, especially a release given in advance of an event or situation. Naturally, when a release is given in advance of an event or situation, the release is routinely executed without a lot of consideration given to when the release would apply. Before the event or situation, you do not foresee the other party committing a negligent act and/or getting hurt by such negligence. But, it certainly could happen which is why the releasee wants to give you an advance release to execute. Further, but for the execution of the release, the releasee (or company that wants the release) will probably not allow you to participate or attend the event, etc. This is another reason the release is routinely executed without a lot of consideration given to the context of the release.
But, as demonstrated by the Florida Supreme Court, this advance release can come back to haunt a person that is injured by the negligence of the releasee simply because that person executed an advance release or release given BEFORE the negligence occurred. Thus, be careful, and appreciate this risk, when executing a release in advance of an event or situation.
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