The Florida Supreme Court recently handed down a decision that many see as a victory for families of wrongfully killed children in Florida. In Fields v. Kirton, No. SC07-1739 (Dec. 11, 2008) (PDF format), the state high court considered whether parents and guardians may sign a release on behalf of their minor children, when the release has to do with a commercial activity. It decided that they do not have the authority to release their children’s liability, which means that the estate of any minor killed in a commercial setting may now sue for wrongful death in Florida.
A release is a contract limiting or removing the legal liability of the company offering the commercial activity. In short, it generally says that you agree to not sue the company if the child is injured during the activity. They are routine parts of the business of bumper car parks, batting cages and other commercial activities that could be dangerous. In this case, a waiver was signed by the father of Christopher Jones, a 14-year-old who was killed at a motorsports park after his ATV landed on top of him. The representative of the teen’s estate, Jordan Fields, eventually sued the park and some of its personnel for wrongful death. The defendants asked to throw it out, pointing to the waiver and release the elder Jones had signed. The trial court agreed. On appeal, the Fourth District Court of Appeals reversed that decision, allowing the estate to sue.
The Florida Supreme Court agreed with that decision, ruling that all waivers signed on behalf of minors are invalid in Florida, if the waiver was for a commercial activity. Pointing out that waivers and releases protect the best interests of the business, not the minor, it wrote that these contracts leave the business with no incentive to take reasonable care for the minor’s safety. That leaves a strong possibility that the family and the state will suffer the personal and financial burden of the injury, the majority wrote. However, the court drew a distinction between “commercial activities” and “school-sponsored” or “community-run” activities. Citing caselaw from Florida and elsewhere, it wrote that commercial enterprises may buy liability insurance, whereas nonprofit or school enterprises cannot afford it and may choose to close rather than provide services.
Practically speaking, this means that no release or waiver of liability for a minor engaged in a commercial activity is valid in Florida. (After all, minors may not form contracts for themselves.) That could be very important to Florida families that have lost children to a business’s careless or reckless behavior. The wrongful death of a child is devastating; the family’s discovery that they have no legal recourse against the responsible parties only compounds that pain. Thanks to this ruling, Florida families can now hold responsible parties liable for illegal or negligent actions and seek justice for the children they’ve lost forever.
As a wrongful death attorney in Aventura, I know all too well that it’s impossible to put a price on a human life. But wrongful death lawsuits offer practical benefits to families: money for medical bills, funerals and other expenses related to the accident, as well as the chance to hold wrongdoers legally responsible for the results of their actions. If you have lost someone you love to someone else’s carelessness and you’d like to learn more about your options, please contact our experienced South Florida wrongful death attorneys for a free consultation.