Conn. High Court: Waiver Doesn’t Immunize Negligent Employer

November 6, 2006

Requiring a worker to sign a liability waiver does not give blanket immunity to employers if that person is later hurt on the job, the state Supreme Court has ruled.

The ruling said the waivers do not protect employers when their negligence caused the worker’s injury. It is the first such ruling in Connecticut to extend that standard to the workplace.

The ruling stems from a 2001 incident in which Robert J. Brown, an instructor at the Skip Barber Racing School in Lakeville, was critically injured when a student struck him with a car during a class on avoiding traffic accidents.

Brown sued the school, the student, a fellow instructor in the student’s vehicle and Daimler Chrysler, which owned the car. The state’s superior and appellate courts threw out Brown’s suit, citing a liability waiver he was required to sign when he was hired.

The Supreme Court’s ruling reinstated Brown’s case on appeal and ordered the lower courts to consider it again, minus the arguments about the liability waiver. The racing school has resolved its portion of the suit, and was not a party in the appeal.

Liability waivers have been upheld in the past when the person who signed them knowingly engaged in a potentially dangerous activity such as racing, skiing or horseback riding and was injured because of his or her own actions.

But the line always has been drawn when the injury occurred because of liability on the part of the facility operators, regardless of whether a waiver was signed.

The high court upheld that standard again in October, ordering lower courts to reinstate the case of a horseback-riding student who said she was injured after being assigned to a horse that tended to buck and was too difficult for someone with her experience level to handle.
That case was argued last May on the same day as Brown’s case, and was decided by the same five Supreme Court justices.

The ruling in Brown’s case holds employers to the same standards as owners of recreational facilities and others who offer products and services to the public.

“It’s essential for the courts to police these boundaries and remind private parties that there are certain fundamental responsibilities that we cannot contract our way out of,” said Steven Ecker, the attorney representing Brown in the appeal.

“The idea here is simply that an employer cannot require as a condition of employment that an employee gives up his or her rights to work in a safe environment,” Ecker said.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court rejected the defendants’ argument that Brown’s background as an experienced racing driver and driving instructor meant he was able to assess the risk before he signed the liability waiver.

The ruling also said Brown and others in his position have “nearly zero bargaining power” to refuse to sign liability waivers as a condition of being hired, making it an unbalanced transaction.

And by working for an employer, the worker essentially places himself or herself under their control and at their mercy for a safe workplace, the justices ruled in a 5-0 decision.

“If employers were permitted to obtain broad waivers of their liability, an important incentive to manage risk would be removed,” the ruling said.

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