Friday Night Rights: School Waivers May Not Be Enforceable

Legal Issues in High School Athletics has featured my recent article concerning a lawsuit arising from the injury of an East Lyme (Conn.) high school track athlete in its May-June 2010 issue.  The article fits in nicely with my blog series “Friday Night Rights”, which covers the legal and business issues that arise in high school sports. 

Connecticut Court Finds Waiver Unenforceable in Negligence Claim Against High School Arising from Track Practice Injury

During the winter, the scene is the same at high schools across New England.  The  basketball teams occupy the gymnasium from the moment the final bell rings.  Hockey teams schedule ice time at local arenas for practice and games.  With meets held at local colleges with large indoor facilities, the track team often has no official practice area.  As a matter of necessity, track coaches and athletes must be creative in finding practice space.  If I recall correctly from my days at Natick High School (Mass.), it was not unusual to see sprinters and hurdlers practicing their craft in the school hallways.

 In 2007, East Lyme High School (Conn.) had a similar practice.  Sprinters would practice in a straight hallway.  During one drill, sprinters would race in pairs for approximately 100 yards.  They had allegedly been coached to finish with their heads down and extended, to provide the best opportunity for victory.  Following the sprint, the momentum of the athletes would carry them into a concrete wall, which the athletes would use to brace themselves and stop.  Unfortunately, during one of these drills an East Lyme sprinter was unable to stop.  Nicholas Furlani’s feet became tangled with another sprinter’s feet at the finish line, causing him to crash head-first into the concrete wall and suffer injury.  Mr. Furlani subsequently brought a lawsuit, Furlani v. Town of East Lyme, Docket Number CV08-5005850-S, against town and school officials in East Lyme.

 The defendants moved for summary judgment, in part arguing that the plaintiff, through his parents, had released the defendants by signing a waiver.  The relevant language in the purported waiver stated as follows:

 I will not hold the East Lyme Public Schools or the East Lyme Board of Education or its employees responsible for any injury sustained while engaging in any practice or game or while traveling to or from practices or contests.

 The Court (Parker, J.T.R.), in Furlani v. Town of East Lyme, 2010 WL 744995 (Conn. Super. Jan. 22, 2010), found that the waiver did not in fact release the defendants from their alleged negligence.  First, the Court found that the release was not sufficiently specific.  Citing the Connecticut Supreme Court’s decision in Hyson v. White Mountain Resorts of Connecticut, 265 Conn. 636 (2003), the Court noted that the release did not unequivocally state that claims predicated on the releasee’s negligence were being released.  Second, the Court drew parallels to the Connecticut Supreme Court’s decisions in prior cases, which held that exculpatory agreements in connection with recreational activities were void against public policy.

In fact, the Connecticut Supreme Court has consistently held that there is an important public policy in promoting participation in recreational and athletic activities, which “constitute an important and healthy part of everyday life.”  Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., 276 Conn. 314 (2005).  In so holding, the Court has voided exculpatory agreements in connection with snow tubing, horseback riding and health clubs.  See Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp.; Reardon v. Windswept Farm, LLC; and Schneeloch v. Glastonbury Fitness & Wellness, Inc., 2009 WL 416645 (Conn. Super. Feb. 2, 2009).

 The Court in Furlani recognized the distinction between exculpatory agreements in the private context of recreational facilities, such as ski resorts, equestrian centers and health clubs, and high school athletics.  Nevertheless, the Court saw no reason to deviate from its policy of voiding agreements that attempt to disclaim negligence in the context of recreational activity. 

 Considering the Connecticut Supreme Court’s stated public policy of promoting recreational activities, one could argue that those policy concerns are amplified when dealing with high school athletics.  The participants are often minors, and the relationship between coach and high school student athlete involves far different dynamics than the relationship between ski resort owner and participant, or health club owner and member.  High school student-athletes rely far more heavily on coaches for guidance and instruction.  Accordingly, it would appear that Connecticut courts would be unwilling to enforce any agreement disclaiming a school or coach’s negligence in connection with a student’s participation in high school athletics. 

 Legal Issues in High School Athletics is a bimonthly newsletter that features detailed case summaries, articles and news briefs that are relevant to high school athletics.  The newsletter is edited by veteran sports law journalist Holt Hackney of Hackney Publications.   Daniel B. Fitzgerald, publisher of the blog Connecticut Sports Law and attorney with Updike, Kelly & Spellacy, and Robert J. Romano, founder of the Romano Sports Agency, serve as contributing editors.  For subscription information, click here.

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