A parent’s signature doesn’t waive the legal rights of a child who is hurt at play, the Michigan Supreme Court said in a decision that has consequences for businesses, schools and other groups offering recreation activities for minors.
The court said Michigan’s 133-year-old common law, which is law rooted in the court’s previous decisions, prevents a parent from entering a contract restricting the rights of a child.
The case involved a 5-year-old boy at a birthday party who broke his leg after jumping down an inflatable slide at Bounce Party, an indoor recreation center near Grand Rapids in western Michigan.
Trent Woodman’s mother sued Bounce Party’s owner, Kera LLC, claiming it failed to properly supervise children and was negligent. The boy didn’t get a pad to move down the slide as the manufacturer required, the family said.
Writing for the majority, Justice Robert Young Jr. said the liability waiver required by Bounce Party and signed by Trent’s father was invalid.
“The application of the common law in this case is simple and straightforward,” he said. “The waiver at issue is a contractual release. Mr. Woodman signed the waiver on behalf of his son, thereby intending to bind Trent to that contract. … Mr. Woodman was without authority to do so.”
Young, a conservative justice, was joined by three members of the court’s liberal bloc. Another justice, Michael Cavanagh, also agreed to uphold a 2008 decision by the appeals court, but that was because of the way the liability waiver was worded.
Young’s conservative colleagues, justices Stephen Markman and Maura Corrigan, disagreed with his interpretation and predicted widespread fallout because of liability risks for recreation sponsors.
“The decision by a majority of justices will have significant consequences that will be felt widely throughout this state, including both an increase in litigation and a reduction in sporting and recreational opportunities for children,” Markman wrote.
Bounce Party lawyer Scott Feuer agreed.
“School districts, coaches, camp counselors, teachers. Any business that holds itself open to children,” he said in an interview. “It sends a message that you help with children at your own peril.”
Justice Diane Hathaway said predictions of doom were overstated.
“The fact is that pre-injury waivers have never been enforced or considered enforceable by the courts of this state,” she said. “Despite the fact that Michigan does not enforce these waivers, children still play football, engage in sports activities and go to bounce parties, just as they do in other states that do not enforce pre-injury waivers.”
The family’s lawyer, Paul McCarthy, said businesses can’t hide behind liability waivers and avoid responsibility.
“Children are the most vulnerable in our society,” he said. “Anyone who says, ‘Give me your children’ — that person needs to be held to the minimum standards required by law.”
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