Originally appeared in the CAS Weekly Newsletter
Dear Legal Mailbag:
I spent a semester in law school before going to graduate school in education, and given that experience, I am a bit of a “jailhouse lawyer” here at the middle school where I serve as an assistant principal. Earlier this year, for example, my principal asked me to update our field trip permission slip form, which I was only too happy to do.
The old permission slip form simply notified parents of the proposed field trip and asked them to give permission for their child to participate. Surprisingly, the form did not ask parents to waive liability for injuries that may occur on the trip. Given how litigious people are these days, I took the opportunity to correct that deficiency. I don’t mean to brag, but the revised form gives the school district significant protection against liability claims. Now parents must sign the following acknowledgement and waiver: “I recognize that accidents happen, and, in the unlikely event that my child is injured on the above-described field trip, I hereby waive any related claims and release the school district and its personnel from any and all liability for any injuries my child may suffer.”
This new permission slip/waiver form was working great with parents signing their rights away without any objection. But last week, a parent who apparently did the full three years of law school amended the form by hand to say that he was giving permission for his daughter to go on a field trip (to the Museum of Science in Boston), but that he was not waiving any claims he may have if she is injured. I called him up and told him that his “amendment” was not acceptable and that he needed to sign the waiver form “as is” if he wants his daughter to go on the trip. In response, he told me that he will be suing me personally if I don’t let his daughter go on the trip.
I hate to give in to threats, but I don’t want to get sued. Can I stand firm?
Maybe you should have stayed in law school for at least the second semester. School officials cannot force parents to waive future claims as a condition for their children going on a field trip, and if such waivers of potential future liability are signed, they are void and ineffective as a matter of public policy.
To be sure, it is important to get parents to sign off when students leave the regular school environment to go on a field trip. A trip to the Museum of Science in Boston seems innocuous, but other field trips could expose children to idiosyncratic risks (think about an student with a peanut allergy and a field trip to the Skippy Peanut Butter factory!). Accordingly, notifying parents when students will be leaving school on a field trip is prudent. Indeed, providing notification may be considered a basic responsibility such that a failure to provide such notification could be considered a breach of duty that would result in liability if a student suffers an injury because parents were not given an opportunity to warn school officials of special dangers for their child
By contrast, the revised form asking parents to waive liability invites antagonism without any concomitant benefit. The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that public policy prohibits enforcement of a release from liability for future negligence, even if the release is stated in clear language. Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corporation, 276 Conn. 314 (2005). Subsequently (and directly relevant to your question), the federal district court for Connecticut ruled in 2013 that a release signed by student who was seriously injured on a trip to China was void as against public policy. Munn v. Hotchkiss School, 933 F. Supp. 2d 343 (D. Conn. 2013). Key to the court’s analysis was the unequal bargaining power between a school offering a field trip opportunity and a parent who would want his/her child to participate in that experience, and the fundamental unfairness of forcing a parent to choose between permitting his/her child to participate in a field trip, on the one hand, and reserving potential future claims on the other.
In short, Legal Mailbag advises that you drop the requirement that parents waive liability claims and that you limit permission slips to the appropriate purpose – to document that a parent has been notified of a situation in which a student will be leaving the regular school environment. And maybe leave the lawyering to the lawyers . . . .