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Florida Court Ruling on ATV Death

Wednesday, January 7, 2009
A recent ruling by the Florida Supreme Court could have devastating implications for youth motorcycle and ATV riding in the state. The case of Fields vs. Kirton, which concerns the legality of parental release waivers, could also affect other youth activities in Florida.

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.
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.
The Case

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 Issue

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.

The Decision

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.”

Going to a track requires so much paperwork at times it feels like you're signing your life away.
Going to a track requires so much paperwork at times it feels like you're signing your life away.
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 Consequences

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.
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.
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dad -agree's  February 8, 2010 12:17 PM
I agree completely it would be my fault 1st for buying the atv, or motorcycle or what ever could hurt my kid. Maybe I will put him in a straight jacket and wrap him up in bubble wrap and tie him to the couch. so he wont get hurt. I hate to hear about you signing a form to let your son die. but its life it is the parents fault for doing all of this. no one to blame for taking your kid riding anywhere. thats the reason most people dont have a place to ride. I guess if there wasnt a track there to began with or any other place to ride you might not have bought him a 4 wheeler to ride. its about like going to mcdonalds and getting a cold coffee you pissed.. then when you get a really hot coffee which i alway thought it is supposed to be hot and you get burnt. you want some money beats all the shuuuuuttttt i have ever seen.
Ron Mexico -appalled  January 5, 2010 10:45 AM
I know the father of Christopher and I know for a fact that he would not put his child in any sort of danger. Ive played sports my whole life and parents sign papers to allow their child to participate in a sport they enjoy not get sign a paper to give their rights away. So if a child that is playin baseball and is pitchin gets hit with a line drive back to him or her and he or she dies is it the parents fault for signing a paper for allowing the child to play? In the first paragraph of the article it is false because Christopher was not hurt on the jump prior to his accident. The mother did know he was riding prior to the accident because she had taken him to a track to ride in Immokalee.
#396 DAD -Who's in CONTROL here?  February 25, 2009 05:42 PM
I just recieved our waiver form for city leauge baseball.It's a waiver similar to what I sign every time I take my son to the local tracks to practice,race and ride.What's being said here is that the city is "not for profit" so they are not liable?Maybe our track should do the accounting needed to make their bottom line come up ZERO,"no profit". Promote it as not for profit and put every dime back into it and run it as not for profit?We all sign these waivers,and understand what can happen if our child gets injured.2 years ago my son was hit in the face with a baseball,it broke his nose.I called my insurance co.3 months ago my son crashed at the local track,thought he cracked his rib.I called my insurance company.It's unfortunate for this families loss.How far will this reach?Local,National,Amature,Pro,Loretta Lynn? My son is 13 and understands the risk.He is informed.I show him the articles about loss of life and injury.WE must be in CONTROL!
Chris #185 -JURY BEHEADS INDUSTRY  January 9, 2009 03:14 PM
I've seen more than my share of sketchy and smooth riders visit their close friend, named dirt.. Its inevitable... Not a matter of if, just when. Everyone knows this expression, but most fail to realize or even remember its relavents.. Its only after rough crashes, especially ones involving kids, that we as a motorcycle community feel vulnerable out there. Whether it be on the track in the woods, or in the news.. This kind of negative press, is why our sport is being beheaded in our hills, on our tracks and in our communities!!
Tim -I'm Appalled!  January 9, 2009 09:53 AM
This article states that "ATV riding is dangerous". I disagree. An ATV is an inanimate object without the interference of a human. Humans are dangerous - to themselves and others. Humans can endanger themselves on an ATV, but it's their own fault not the ATV's! Some humans are so stupid that they can hurt themselves walking down the street. Do they sue Nike? I could ride around on an ATV all day long and not experience any danger. Doing more extreme things like running wide open and jumping are dangerous. But again is the ATV in control?! NO! To put it bluntly, this lady is stupid bitch. I hope she gets on an ATV soon and I hope that ATV attacks. It sucks that her son is dead, but he did this to himself. Nobody likes taking responsibility for their own actions anymore. She sees she can cash in so she is trying. I hope the courts put her in her place. It only takes one idiot to ruin it for the rest of us!
ALF -There is no sanity left in the system.  January 8, 2009 12:50 PM
Beyond the court debate about commercial and non-commercial activities: Hello dim bulb parents! There is a risk associated with many activities, including horse back riding, jet skying, ATV and bike riding, hunting, fishing, roller-blading, scuba diving, etc, etc. If you can't take the heat, well don't involve your kids, don't do it yourself, stay home and watch TV, learn how to knit, or something. One can't even let the meter reader on his or her own property anymore - make sure those garden hoses are tucked out of the way or someone could fall and sue. One can't even own nice dogs anymore. I could not get an umbrella policy with my insurance provider in spite of having a perfect record because I keep two horses on my property. "This is an unacceptable risk sir!" I gave up dirt bike riding years ago because there is nowhere left to go. In my semi rural neighborhood, ATV and dirt bike riders break the law every day when riding on public dirt roads because they have no where else to go. Track owners are gone, public land is closed. My rant is quite dis-organized I admit, a result of frustration may be, but I hate to see these people going out of business because they offer a service that happens to be intrinsically risky. If they are negligent it is one thing, but because they merely offer a service...aarghh. God knows we should start by banning the ambulance chaser's ads on TV.
Jeff Dillard -Read the REASON  January 8, 2009 03:47 AM
The decision is based on the opinion that a "commercial" activity “can insure against the risk of loss and include these costs in the price of participation.” This is nothing more than socialism brought about by communism, two of the tings our government was designed to protect us from collectively and individually experiencing. WATCH OUT! Your group is next.
Wes -Very disturbing, but that's our legal system  January 7, 2009 10:16 PM
What ever happened to personal responsiblity? The parent/legal guardian should be the person that makes the choice for the minor and by making the choice they are accepting responsiblity. Sounds like the parents should be suing one another not the track.
x2468 -this is B.S.  January 7, 2009 06:15 PM
this type of thing angers me so much. and this is the part i don't get the most: 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.” what is the other parties negligence? i'm assuming the other party are the track owners and operators?? so what was their negligence? that they made the track too difficult or too dangerous? that's a load of shyte. frivolous lawsuits are destroying our country and taking away all of our rights. it is breeding a state in which the government can control us with the excuse that we must be saved from ourselves, and people need to wake up to this fact. unless the track was somehow mismanaged or booby trapped. which i don't see any evidence of.