Crafting a release against future claims: Its trickier than you think!

With summer in full swing, fellowship outings, mission work, community service projects, and numerous other events await religious organizations over the next few months.   Knowing the importance of protecting against a lawsuit should a member unexpectedly injure themselves during such events, religious organizations often include in the registration documents some release language.  Ultimately, the level of protection afforded by such releases depends on how much attention was taken in crafting both the release, and the entire document in which the release is located.

Termed “exculpatory clauses,” these releases are strictly construed against the party seeking to be relieved of liability. Courts are required to read such clauses together with all other related provisions of the documents to determine whether the intention to be released was made clear, such that an ordinary person would know what he/she is contracting away. Acknowledging the heightened scrutiny applied to such clauses, one Florida court wrote “we do not look with favor on exculpatory clauses, we must require the draftsmen of all contracts which contain them to use clear and unequivocal language totally without a hint of deceptive come-on, or inconsistent clauses.”

In a recent opinion, Florida’s Third District Court of appeal reversed a trial court’s enforcement of a gym’s exculpatory clause.  The gym was sued by a member who was knocked unconscious by another customer. The gym contract contained language aimed at releasing the gym from claims brought by gym members. The appellate court found the language in the release that claimant would “assume full responsibility for any risk of bodily injury, death or negligence of any of the clubs or otherwise while [I am] on the premises occupied by any of the clubs,” though broad and clearly worded, conflicted with other language in the release.  Therefore, the gym was not protected against claims by the injured member.

The takeaway from the high scrutiny courts continue to apply to the enforcement of exculpatory clause is that great attention and care should be taken when crafting any such release language.  Religious organizations are well advised to have legal counsel assist with the drafting of such release provisions.