School Sports Injuries and the Enforceability of Waivers

School safety law is not confined to transportation issues and we'd be remiss if we left our discussion of school safety at the schoolhouse door. Injuries can occur anytime during the school day and these injuries raise complex legal issues. While injuries can happen during the instructional hours, injuries are especially common on the sporting fields and the gymnasium.

School sports injuries range from a minor sprain to a serious concussion to a heat-related death. When injuries are serious (or even deadly), our Northwest Florida school sports injury lawyer is prepared to represent the injured minor in a civil lawsuit. This post focuses on one key issue in such lawsuits - the validity of student athlete injury waivers signed.

Schools Open, Football Season Follows Soon

High-school football is getting ready to begin in Bay County. WJHG notes that there are many groups, such as Heads Up Football, focused on keeping athletes safe. Coaches recently met with the group to discuss proper equipment fittings, heat/hydration issues, and the threat of concussions. Danny Cowgill, a Heads Up organizer, emphasized being alert for concussion symptoms and properly acclimating players to playing in the heat and humidity (even locals!). He also noted that improperly fitted equipment can actually lead to injury, rather than preventing it.

Waivers & The Law

Whether the school, a coach, or another entity can be held liable for a school sports injury involves several complex legal issues. Often a school (or other sponsor) requires a parent sign a waiver before their child can participate in a sporting activity. But are these waivers enforceable?

The Kirton Case - Pre-Injury Waiver Unenforceable for Child's Claim Against Commercial Entity

In 2008, the Florida Supreme Court heard the case ofKirton v. Fields in which a child was injured riding an all-terrain vehicle in a commercial sports park. The park required a parent sign a purported waiver of liability before the child could participate. The court's ruling focused on a parent's right to sign on the child's behalf.

Analyzing the waiver, the court concluded "a parent does not have the authority to execute a pre-injury release on behalf of a minor child when the release involves participation in a commercial activity." In essence, the court found that the waiver protected the sports park, not the minor child, leading the state to step in to protect the child. Importantly, the court noted that a school or a charity might be different, but did not rule on that issue.

Extending Kirton to the School Sports Context

While the State Supreme Court has not ruled on waivers in the school sports context, we believe there is often a strong argument for invalidating such waivers. In 1984, a state appellate court stated the general principle that the state "recognizes the general duty of schools, principals and teachers to adequately supervise students placed within their care" (Leahy v. School Board of Hernando County).

The Leahy court further specified that schools must provide student athletes with adequate instruction, proper equipment, and non-negligent supervision. We believe students' safety-focused rights should be no easier to waive in school contexts than in the commercial field given these duties.

Waivers & Public Policy

Furthermore, the law does not permit waivers in the case of gross negligence/misconduct, recklessness, or intentional wrongs. Any agreement that tried to waive injuries caused by such acts would be against public policy since it would encourage dangerous behavior. An example might be a coach who sends an athlete back out to play despite very significant signs of a concussion. In such cases, a waiver would likely be deemed unenforceable.

Representing the Injured Student Athlete

We'd urge any parent whose child suffered a significant school sports injury to seek legal counsel, even if they signed a pre-injury waiver. Never assume a waiver is enforceable. Additionally, remember that there may be other legal claims related to the injury suit. Beyond a negligence suit, there might be a premises liability claim (i.e. dangerously uneven turf factored into an injury), a claim tied to a dangerous policy (i.e. not requiring full safety equipment during practices), or a products liability company (i.e. a defective helmet).

Attorney Pittman is an experienced Florida injury attorney. Our firm has the experience and knowledge needed to serve as a law firm for injured student athletes in Panama City and beyond. Call if we can put this expertise to work for you.

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