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Florida Non-profit Organization Protected by Release, Even though Release Did Not Specifically Mention Negligence – Sanislo v. Give Kids the World, Inc.

Waiting the brideIf you are asked to sign a release before engaging in a particular activity, you need to ask yourself whether you are truly willing to waive, in advance, any claims you may have against the party asking you to sign the release. Unfortunately, many people sign such documents without giving a second thought to their actual significance under the law. This can be a huge mistake. The case of Sanislo v. Give Kids the World, Inc. illustrates the point.

The defendant was a non-profit organization that provided seriously ill children and their families with vacations at a resort village. The plaintiffs were parents who applied for a vacation for their child. During the request process, the parents signed a form that purported to release the defendant from “any liability for any potential cause of action.” The defendant approved the parents’ request. When the family arrived at the resort (located in Kissimmee, Florida), the plaintiffs again signed a liability release form. Neither release specifically said that the plaintiffs were waiving any negligence claims that might arise.

During their time at the defendant’s village, the family participated in a wagon ride. The wagon had a lift in the back for the benefit of persons confined to wheelchairs. While on a ride in the wagon, the family stepped onto the lift to pose for a picture. The lift collapsed, and the mother injured her hip and back. The plaintiffs filed suit in the Circuit Court for Osceola County, asserting a negligence claim against the organization. In response, the organization asserted that it was entitled to an affirmative defense due to the release signed by the plaintiffs. Both parties filed motions for summary judgment on the issue of the release. The trial court granted the plaintiffs’ motion, and the matter proceeded to trial. The jury found in favor of the plaintiffs and awarded them damages.

The Intermediate Appeal

The organization appealed the case to the Fifth District Court of Appeals, arguing that the trial court should have awarded summary judgment in its favor rather than allowing the matter to proceed to trial. The essence of the organization’s argument was that, although the release in question did not contain the word “negligence,” it was unambiguous in its intent to preclude a lawsuit such as the one brought by the plaintiffs.  After considering the arguments of the parties, the Fifth District Court reversed.

According to the court, the trial court’s denial of summary judgment was in error because the exculpatory clause at issue barred the plaintiff’s action even though it did not specifically refer to “negligence.” Noting that its opinion was in direct conflict with the other four Florida district courts of appeal in similar cases, the Fifth District certified the matter to the state supreme court.

The Ruling of the Florida Supreme Court

After due consideration of the issues, the state supreme court opted to approve the Fifth District’s decision in the underlying case. In so holding, the court disapproved the decisions of the other intermediate appellate courts to the contrary in the other cases. The majority opinion was met with a strong dissent from Justice Lewis, who opined that the court had left “our most vulnerable citizens open to catastrophe.”

To Speak to a South Florida Accident Lawyer

If you have been the victim of a personal injury and would like to discuss the merits of your case with an experienced attorney, the law firm of Cohn & Smith, P.A. is here to help. Contact us today at (954) 431-8100 to set up a free initial consultation. We look forward to putting our decades of combined experience to work in helping you fight for justice. We practice in Weston, Tamarac, Aventura, and throughout South Florida.

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