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School Liability Waivers: What a Parent Signs Away

By Deanne Katz, Esq. | Updated by Vaidehi Mehta, Esq. | Last updated on

School liability waivers are so common that most parents sign them without thinking twice. They come up during sports, field trips, and other extracurricular activities where school officials are in charge.

Not signing the release form means your child can't participate in the activity. Most parents consider that too unfair given the presumably low-risk activities schools engage in on field trips. But signing the waiver doesn't mean you have no legal recourse if something goes wrong.

Schools Do Have a Duty to Students

Many parents assume that a waiver of liability removes any right to sue. But that isn't the case.

Waivers for kids' activities are common, but that doesn't mean that courts like them. Many state courts refuse to uphold them for anything other than the activity's inherent risks. That means you still have a right to sue for negligence in most cases.

Schools often have a duty to students, so the real key is proving that the failure to supervise appropriately resulted in injury. That doesn't generally extend to lawsuits that arise out of inherently dangerous activities where there was appropriate supervision. Contact sports such as football are an example of an activity when injuries can happen even if children are appropriately supervised. Thus, parents may be out of luck when they go to court in school sports cases.

Schools Get Special Leeway

At the outset, it’s important to recognize that a school's setting (as opposed to other institutions, say, a Chuck-E-Cheese) makes a difference in liability. Schools are afforded a special leeway that private businesses aren’t given.

For example, Florida courts have typically ruled that when parents sign waivers for their kids for an activity run by a for-profit business or community setting, the waiver is unenforceable against the kid, meaning that the parents can still sue for their kids’ injuries.

In North Carolina, a parent may not bind a child to a pre-injury liability waiver by signing the liability waiver on the child's behalf. But such waivers are enforceable in the context of non-profit activities sponsored by schools, volunteers, or community organizations. The lesson here is that certain types of organizations — namely, ones that aren’t trying to profit from you — are held to a lower standard than businesses.

One example is the North Carolina case of the liability waiver signed by the mother of 15-year-old Navy Junior ROTC cadet for participation in a training program at a Marine Corps base during which the child was injured. The court held that the waiver was enforceable because the activity was not commercial (and because was extracurricular and voluntary).

Types of Lawsuits From Field Trips

Most waivers come up in the context of permission slips for field trips. Personal injury claims can arise from a variety of incidents and hinge on the concept of negligence. To bring a suit for negligence you have to show that someone had a duty to watch your minor child, that they failed in that duty and subsequently that some kind of injury occurred.

The most common type of lawsuit from school field trips are related to premises liability. This type of lawsuit applies when a student gets injured due to unsafe conditions at the field trip location. Examples include slip-and-fall accidents on uneven surfaces, injuries sustained on malfunctioning equipment, or exposure to dangerous hazards at the venue. The crux of the lawsuit lies in proving the school's failure to maintain a reasonably safe environment for the students.

Other types of lawsuits resulting from field trips claim negligent supervision. If a student gets injured because the school staff failed to properly supervise them during the trip, a lawsuit for negligent supervision might arise. This could involve situations where a student wanders off unsupervised, gets into trouble due to a lack of clear instructions, or is bullied by other students without intervention.

Of course, the name “field tripsuggests plenty of possibilities for transportation accidents. School bus accidents to and from the field trip location can also lead to lawsuits. These would follow the standard personal injury guidelines and focus on the driver's negligence or a mechanical issue with the bus causing the accident.

Exceptions to Waivers

Schools can’t waive away your and your kid’s legal rights to everything. As you probably know, waivers, like other contracts, have to be reasonable. Most states will enforce liability waivers unless the contract (1) breaks a separate law, (2) the signature is obtained through some kind of coercion, or (3) is against public interest or public policy.

“Public policy” is often cited as an important factor that courts will consider when deciding if a waiver is reasonable and thus enforceable. But for most jurisdictions, in the context of schools, public policy usually weighs in favor of nullifying the waiver rather than enforcing it. Most states take the view that public policy urges us to protect children from the unwise choices of their parents for signing waivers willy-nilly by making those waivers null and void if the child gets injured.

Field Trip Immunity Laws

Notably, California is a special exception in that it has a “field trip immunity” statute that says that anyone who participates in a field trip (not just students, but also teachers, and chaperones) is considered to have waived their right to sue the school district, the state, or a charter school if they are injured, become sick, or even die during the field trip.

It should be noted that only certain types of trips qualify for this immunity, and there are certain requirements. For example, the trip should be voluntary rather than mandatory, and it depends on whether the student receives a grade or school credit for the activity. Also, it only applies to in-state field trips. And finally, the school district can still be held liable if their negligence was the direct cause of the injury. For instance, if a school bus driver was speeding and caused an accident, the district might be responsible.

It's important to remember that even with field trip immunity laws in some states, schools can still be held liable if their negligence is demonstrably the cause of the injury. This emphasizes the importance of proper planning, adequate supervision, and ensuring a safe environment for students during field trips.

Was Your Child Injured at School?

If your child is hurt at school or on a school trip, always talk to a lawyer before making a decision about whether to sue. A personal injury lawyer can help you understand your rights and give you options for how to move forward after the injury.

A new school year will probably bring more liability waivers for parents to sign. But if your child is hurt, don't let it stop you from finding out what you're entitled to under the law.

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