Why You Should Always Read Disclaimers and Waivers of Liability
While on a recent vacation, I signed up for a unique interaction with various marine animals. Before I could register, however, the staff at the resort required me to sign a full disclaimer/waiver of liability. It was a single piece of paper, which included plenty of legal jargon in all types of fonts and sizes. Some words were italicized. Others were in bold. Others were underlined. Eager to begin the day’s activity without thinking about legal issues, I signed the waiver. It probably was not the smartest decision. If I had gotten injured, been killed, or sustained any type of damage–financial or otherwise–I may have had no legal right to sue or bring a claim against the owner, operator, or any one of the many employees associated with the owner/operator of the attraction, simply due to my signing the disclaimer/waiver document.
This is a scenario that frequently occurs in the lives of many New Jersey consumers at places throughout the state and country. Many owners and operators of rides, attractions, events, and other activities now request that their patrons sign legal documents that waive, hold harmless, indemnify, or disclaim the owners’/operators’ liability if a patron is killed or suffers bodily injury while participating in the particular activity. By signing the legal document, the consumer may be giving up his right to sue the owner/operator or anyone else named in the document if the patron is killed or injured while participating in the activity. It should be noted, though, that many of these waivers/disclaimers also state that, by signing the document, the consumer gives up the right to sue or bring a claim against the owner/operator/or anyone else named in the document. In other words, consumers must be very careful when confronted with a waiver/disclaimer.
Things as simple as a community softball game, 5K footrace, or a gym membership all typically involve an entry application that includes a waiver/disclaimer of liability. Sometimes the waiver/disclaimer language is not in a separate document but rather appears in regular size or fine print at the bottom of an event application or a membership contract. Although an operator/owner cannot force a consumer or patron to sign the waiver/disclaimer document, the owner/operator can prevent the customer from participating in the activity if he fails to sign the document. For that reason, many consumers simply sign the documents without reading them. Doing so, though, could be a recipe for disaster. You cannot begin to imagine all of the things and scenarios that are often included in these documents.
In a recent case known as Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises LLC, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that members of fitness centers can sign away their rights to sue over injuries, except with regard to injuries that are caused by a private fitness center’s reckless or gross negligence. The Supreme Court also wrote that “when a party enters into a signed, written contract, the party is presumed to understand and assent to its terms, unless fraudulent conduct is suspected.” So it is important to note that the Supreme Court’s ruling indicates that there are exceptions to waivers/disclaimers in the private fitness center context.
In my career, I have seen several potential clients’ cases spoiled by waivers/disclaimers that they signed without even realizing what they were signing in the first place. Then an accident happens, and the injured party wants compensation. The problem is that many people sign these documents without thinking twice, and by the time they try to file a claim or lawsuit, they have long forgotten that they ever signed anything that could potentially forfeit their right to sue or make a claim for injuries they sustained. If something concerns your rights, it is always better to be safe than sorry. So, be sure to read everything before you sign anything. You could be signing your rights away.