Before you cheer ... 'Sign here.'
Schools often ask parents to give up the right to sue when kids join a team or go on a trip. What's at stake?
"Mom, dad, would one of you pull-eeze sign my permission slip?"Skip to next paragraph
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It's a familiar refrain in many households and not unlike the request Shimon Sharon heard when his daughter, Merav, presented him with a small card on her way out the door to school.
In large type at the top it read: "Newton Public Schools Athletics. Parental Consent, Release from Liability and Indemnity Agreement." A dense paragraph of legal jargon followed.
Without Mr. Sharon's signature, Merav could not join the cheerleading squad at Newton (Mass.) North High School. So, like many parents in a hurry, he scribbled his name without reading it and forgot all about it.
That was 1995. Today, that little card has popped up at the center of a precedent-setting legal battle between Sharon's now-adult daughter - who was injured while cheerleading - and the city of Newton. The key issue is whether the card that father and daughter both signed exempts the school and city from being held liable for alleged negligence.
At a hearing next month, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court will consider this issue for the first time. A lower court granted a motion for summary judgment in favor of the city in September 2000.
But if that ruling is overturned, it could send shock waves through schools statewide and beyond. Activities from football to field trips could be chopped to limit liability, says Richard Chmielinski, a lawyer for the City of Newton. Others say that claim is completely unfounded.
Either way, state officials, school lawyers, and insurance companies are watching closely, eager to find new ways to avert multimillion-dollar judgments.
In some states, city liability has already been capped by the legislatures, as it is in Massachusetts at $100,000.
Even so, lessening the risk of legal liability and cutting often-steep school insurance costs to cover sports and transportation for students on field trips have become powerful motivators. Which partly explains the ever-growing blizzard of permission slips laced with waiver provisions.
Like Sharon, many parents don't realize they are signing their rights away. Others aren't aware that the effectiveness of the liability waivers varies greatly from state to state. In many, waivers are "not worth the paper they're printed on," one expert says. In a few others, they are frequently upheld.
The card Sharon signed had language that eliminated his right to sue for negligence. Not only that, it provided that Sharon would pay back, or "indemnify," the school if his daughter were to sue at a future date.
"I signed it without knowing the consequences, so that my daughter could participate in the cheerleading program," Mr. Sharon testified in a court affidavit. "I did not think about that form from that day forward. I did not recall having signed this release.... After I recently read it more carefully, I still didn't understand it."
Shortly after Merav joined the cheerleading squad in 1995, she fell during practice from atop a human pyramid and broke her arm severely. Three years later, when she became an adult, she sued the city, alleging that the school failed to ensure that her coach was properly trained and was taking proper safety precautions.
But the city played its trump card - producing the liability-waiver form signed years earlier. Ms. Sharon's lawyer is predictably unimpressed.
"We found that in almost every other state in the country they have struck down releases of the right to sue for negligence," says Jeffrey Petrucelly, Ms. Sharon's attorney. "It's hard for parents. Children say they want to engage in an activity and [ask parents parents to] sign this form. In this case, the form was in tiny print and hard to understand."
A critical factor in the Sharon case is the status of public schools - and the extracurriculars they offer. Many courts have ruled that because K-12 schools are public institutions and education is compulsory, the institution has unfair leverage in contracting with parents to release the school from liability for future negligence.
On the other hand, city lawyers say nobody forced Merav Sharon to be a cheerleader. It was a purely optional after-school activity. "They're nonrequired courses, so it's always the option of the student to avail themselves of it, or seek elsewhere, such as a private sports program," Mr. Chmielinski says.