The team at Dodson Parker Behm & Capparella, PC shares updates and thoughts on developments in the law.

Injured Patron Can’t Sue; Membership Agreement Waived Right

July 26, 2016

An exculpatory clause waives the right to sue.  A recent Court of Appeals case shows that it the waiver can be far broader than you may realize. 

Case  Sandra Gibson v. Young Men’s Christian Association of Middle Tennessee

Background

Plaintiff Sandra Young fell after she tripped on an allegedly uneven or cracked sidewalk just outside the entrance of her local YMCA where she was a member.  Ms. Young was injured and filed suit against the YMCA on a claim of negligence.

In her membership application, Ms. Young agreed to following provision:

I do hereby waive, release and forever discharge the YMCA and its officer, agents, employees, volunteers, representatives, directors and all others from any and all responsibility or liability for injuries or damages resulting from participation in such activities or programs or my use of such facilities, equipment or machinery, even if such damage or injury results from a negligent act or omission.

The YMCA argued that Ms. Young expressly assumed the risk for her injuries by signing the membership application.  The trial court denied the motion, concluding that there was a question of fact as to whether Ms. Young and the YMCA intended for the contract clause to apply to a trip and fall on a cracked area in disrepair.

YMCA was granted an interlocutory appeal.

The Court of Appeals began its analysis observing that such exculpatory agreements like the one at issue in this case are enforceable in Tennessee and should be construed under the familiar rules of contract interpretation.  Because there was no ambiguity in the agreement, the Court of Appeals’ task was to look only at the literal meaning of the contract language.

The Court concluded that Ms. Young’s use of the facilities – her walking on the sidewalk by the entrance to the YMCA – was one contemplated under the exculpatory clause.  As such, Ms. Young had released the YMCA from any negligence related to this use of the facilities.  Accordingly, the YMCA should have been granted summary judgment and the trial court’s order denying summary judgment was reversed.

Commentary

We all sign a lot of membership agreements like the one at issue in this case, usually without any regard to what those agreements say.  Those agreements often contain such exculpatory clauses.  Perhaps we even think that those provisions won’t be enforceable in standardized form agreements, but they are not disfavored and can absolutely result in a waiver of rights.  The question is, would anyone reasonably think that the sidewalk in front of the YMCA is a use of the “facilities”?  I sure would not—a slip and fall in the weight room, or at the pool, but on the sidewalk.  I respectfully disagree with this decision.

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