Originally appeared in the CAS Weekly NewsBlast. Written by Attorney Thomas B. Mooney.
Dear Legal Mailbag:
It happens every time. One of my fourth grade teachers sent permission slips home with the children a week ago, but she realized the day of the field trip to the dairy farm that one of the parents had not returned the signed permission slip. When the student was questioned as to the permission slip, her eyes welled with tears at the thought of having to stay behind, and the teacher got me involved.
I called the father at work, and he apologized for forgetting to return the permission slip. He did ask me about the part where we ask parents to waive liability, but after some discussion (during which I reminded him of his tearful daughter), he said he would take his chances and sign the form.
That left the practical problem of how we would get his signature in the half hour before the bus left for the dairy farm. He asked if a simple email would do, but I thought that it would be better if I got his actual signature. So I had my secretary send him another copy of the permission slip by PDF, and with like two minutes to spare he sent me the signed permission slip, again by PDF. I hate fire drills like this, but it was better than having a little girl crying in my office all day. Do you think that getting the permission slip signed by PDF and received by email adequately protects the district?
I do. However, I think that you may need a refresher on permission slips more generally. School officials require permission slips to assure that parents are on notice that there will be a special event away from school, with the new risks that such an event poses. We can well imagine that a parent of a child with allergies would want to know that his or her child will be exposed to a different environment, such as a peanut butter factory or a dairy farm. Such notice gives the parent the opportunity to warn school officials of any allergies or other conditions that may pose a risk to his or her child. Conversely, if school officials bring a student into a new environment without notifying the parent and the child has an allergic reaction or encounters another problem, a jury reviewing the matter may well find that it was unreasonable for school officials not to give the parent a heads-up and, therefore, that the school district is liable for any resulting injury.
Your situation presents the question of how such notification should be provided. The key, however, is not “how” but rather “whether.” You must be able to show that the parent received notification of the changed environment, and, to that end, an email could be sufficient as documentation from the parent that you provided notice to him or her. Your going the extra mile to get a signature on the permission slip by PDF made it even clearer that the parent was aware of the trip and gave his permission. If there had then been a problem, the parent could not have claimed lack of notice or surprise.
Finally, I note that the parent was concerned that the permission slip asked that he waive any liability claims, but, ultimately, he decided to risk it. You should know, however, that any such purported waiver of potential future liability claims is ineffective in Connecticut as against public policy. Your situation illustrates perfectly the concern. When negotiating power was anything but equal (cue crying fourth grader in the office), the parent supposedly waived any future liability claim, relieving the teacher and other school district officials of the duty to be careful. The courts have held that such waivers violate public policy and will not be enforced. Moreover, in some districts, parents actually read what they are asked to sign and the request to waive liability claims can invite parent objection. For the reasons stated above, permission slips can serve an important purpose to document that a parent was aware of a field trip and did not raise any special concerns. However, you should just have parents acknowledge the trip and give permission, rather than supposedly waive liability, which is not worth the paper such a purported waiver is written on.
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