ATV riding is dangerous, and everyone involved knows the risks. However, as this case illustrates, even the best-laid plans to protect against liability can prove futile.
In 2003 Bobby Jones took his 14-year-old son, Christopher, to the Thunder Cross Motor Sports Park in Okeechobee, Florida. Riding an ATV, Christopher died after a crash on a jump. Bobby, “the primary residential parent” of Christopher had signed a release waiver prior to the Jones’ participation at the MX park. The lawsuit claims the mother, Bette Jones, was unaware of the ATV riding or that “approximately one month prior to the accident causing Christopher’s death, he had attempted the same jump, resulting in a fractured rib and mild concussion.”
A wrongful death suit was filed on behalf of the Christopher Jones estate against Thunder Cross Motor Sports. The case is known as Fields vs. Kirton (Fields being the Jones’ estate representative and Kirton being the family running Thunder Cross). An initial trial found in favor of Kirton, upholding the father’s release waiver. The Fourth District Court of Appeal, however, reversed the decision. On further appeal the case was sent to the Florida Supreme Court.
The question judged by the Florida Supreme Court is: “whether a parent may bind a minor’s estate by the pre-injury execution of a release.”
In layman’s terms, the case challenges parental release waivers and if fit parents have the right to release the legal rights afforded their children. Prior case law is inconsistent, with release waivers upheld on multiple occasions, but thrown out in others. Fields vs. Kirton calls the entire waiver system into question.
On Dec 11, 2008, the Florida Supreme Court, in a 4-1 decision, sided in favor of Fields. Upholding the appellate court ruling, the Supreme Court stated: “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.”
The keyword in the ruling is “commercial” activity. The reasoning being a commercial enterprise “can insure against the risk of loss and include these costs in the price of participation.”
Explaining its position further the court states: “…we find that there is injustice when a parent agrees to waive the tort claims of a minor child and deprive the child of the right to legal relief when the child is injured as a result of another party’s negligence.”
The court goes on to say: “…when a parent decides to execute a pre-injury release on behalf of a minor child, the parent is not protecting the welfare of the child, but is instead protecting the interests of the activity provider.”
The court does recognize, however, that pre-injury releases can be upheld in “school-run or community-sponsored activities.” (The most immediate examples being school sports like football and cheerleading.)
The open-ended ruling has potentially far-reaching effects on youth riding in Florida. MX parks and tracks would clearly fall under the umbrella of “commercial activity” and figure to suffer.
“People come in, they pay me at the gate to use my track, I mean that’s a business,” says Robert Paxia, owner of Pax Trax Motocross Park. Although the already high cost of insurance figures to increase, the 13-year owner will continue to open his track as is until clarification on the ruling. “I’m still going to run and operate like I do today. They’re still going to sign the waiver when they come on the property, regardless of if it’s good or not. It’s still an agreement with me and these people.”
“We actually have injuries, people do get hurt, but a lot of the times its not because of the negligence of the track,” continues Paxia. “These people need to take some responsibility. If they get on a motorcycle and they’re going around a track, things happen.”
Bigger consequences of the ruling could extend to the “school-run or community-sponsored activities.” Even the Supreme Court’s ruling acknowledges the murky line between commercial and non-commercial activities. For example, are the youth groups and athletic activities of churches or other independent associations commercial or non-commercial? What about non-profit groups that charge fees and dues for participation? The ruling (which can be read at Fields vs. Kirton), seems to imply that non-profit group pre-injury releases would be upheld, but whether specific activities are commercial or non-commercial would seemingly be decided in a court of law.
Problems regarding the ambiguity of the ruling were expressed in the lone dissenting opinion of Justice Charles Wells, who says: “the line dividing commercial activities from community-based and school-related activities is far from clear. For example, is a Boy Scout or Girl Scout, YMCA, or church camp a commercial establishment or a community-based activity? Is a band trip to participate in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade a school or commercial activity? What definition of commercial is to be applied?”
Track operators will have pay attention to the outcome and think long and hard about how to keep their business open.
Wells goes on to say: “The importance of this issue cannot be overstated because it affects so many youth activities and involves so much monetary exposure. Bands, cheerleading squads, sports teams, church choirs, and other groups that often charge for their activities and performances will not know whether they are a commercial activity because of the fees and ticket sales. How can these groups carry on their activities that are so needed by youth if the groups face exposure to large damage claims either by paying defense costs or damages? Insuring against such claims is not a realistic answer for many activity providers because insurance costs deplete already very scarce resources. The majority’s decision seems just as likely to force small-scale activity providers out of business as it is to encourage such providers to obtain insurance coverage.”
The solution in Wells eyes was for judicial restraint, calling on the state legislature, not the judiciary, to set policy for pre-injury releases – if it is required.
Another unintended consequence of the court ruling is the lack of public debate and input, which accompany legislative action, has caught many Florida track operators off guard. The track owners we spoke with, including Paxia, expressed confusion over the court ruling and said the other owners they had called were also surprised.
“Until we get more clarification on all of this,” says Paxia, “what does it really mean for us? I don’t know.”
Other tracks, like County Line Action Sports Park owned by Roger Godin, plan on switching to a private group/club structure. If so, the group might fall under the nebulous umbrella of “non-commercial” activity. But the ill-defined definitions in the court ruling make for an uncertain future.
Perhaps the only thing we can be sure of is more costly court cases.