Your organization likely sponsors a variety of exciting activities, including trips. Ensure full participation and minimal risk in all of your activities by having each participant sign a carefully worded assumption of risk and release of liability. If you fail to fully disclose the potential risks of your activity, you expose your organization to potential litigation.
Cara Munn was a student at a private school that sponsored a study abroad trip to China. As part of the process of signing up for the trip, her parents signed a release of liability form outlining the details of the trip, including what to bring and what to expect while traveling to China. However, the release form did not outline all of the potential risks, specifically the fact that the group would be travelling to a more remote area of the country with limited access to medical services, and that participants would be exposed to insect-borne illnesses.
The group was hiking in a forested area in northwest China when Cara was bit by an infected tick and contracted tick-borne encephalitis, a disease with life-changing symptoms.
A federal jury determined that the school was negligent in not specifically listing insect-borne illness as one of the risks of the trip. The school appealed, but the Connecticut Supreme Court supported the jury’s decision. The court was clear that the school had a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect students under their care from foreseeable harms. Traveling to China does not create an exception to this duty. As a result of its negligence, the school was found liable for more than $41 million in damages.
While incidents like this are rare, the consequences are severe for everyone involved. Here are several important takeaways from this ruling to help protect your organization:
Make sure every participant has a completed release of liability form. Make sure that parents have signed on behalf of any minors, and that all participants are covered by a release. It’s easy to overlook a participant or to assume that they signed a release in the past, but it’s vital to thoroughly double check that everyone coming through the door, getting on the bus or boarding a plane has appropriate paperwork.
Make sure the release is specific to the event. Planning excursions can be exhausting, but this is not the time to take the easy road and cover every event with one big blanket release. It’s nearly impossible to cover the details of the specific event’s risk in a blanket release. The assumption of risk should detail all the possible risks of the event including travel, athletic participation, weather, etc.
Make sure the release is reviewed by legal counsel. Laws related to effective releases are different in each state. Work with your legal counsel to develop a template document that can be used to outline the risk associated with each activity and that has appropriate language releasing your organization from liability.
Make sure releases are part of a document retention program. The statute of limitations can be extensive when it comes to the types of claims brought on by activities, and it does no good to have a signed release if you cannot produce it during discovery. Get advice from your legal counsel on how long you need to retain signed releases, and store these releases in a secure, yet easily accessible place.