Into the Void – Claims of Sixteen-Year-Old Skydiver Not Barred by Waiver and Release (OK)

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Wethington v. Swainson (Oklahoma)

Accompanied by her parents, a sixteen-year-old girl went to the defendant to learn how to skydive.  As part of the registration process, the girl signed a “Registration Form and Medical Statement” that included a disclaimer near the bottom referring to the serious risks associated with skydiving.  The girl participated in an instruction course, which included fours hours of training.  In connection with the instruction course, the girl and her parents signed a detailed “Agreement, Release of Liability and Acknowledgement of Risk” form, which included numerous exculpatory provisions (the “Release”).  The Release also included a “Ratification by Parent/Guardian,” which was signed by both of the girl’s parents.  When she jumped from the plane, the girl’s parachute malfunctioned, causing her to spin rapidly toward the ground.  She landed at a high speed and impact, causing her to sustain serious injury.

The girl and her parents sued the defendant, and the defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the Release barred the plaintiffs’ claims.  The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma granted the motion in part and denied the motion in part.  Reviewing Oklahoma law and the terms of the Release, the Court concluded that “the Release states in clear and unequivocal terms the intention of the parties to excuse Defendant from liability caused by Defendant’s negligence, equipment failure, or inadequate instruction.”  However, the Court acknowledged that the minor had voided the Release due to her status as a minor, and the Court noted that “[u]nder Oklahoma law, a minor’s right to rescind a contract is unaffected by the approval or consent of a parent.”

The girl’s parents did “knowingly sign[] the Release on her behalf, ratifying and affirming its exculpatory content, and agree[d] to be bound thereby.”  However, the defendant was unable to direct the Court to any controlling legal authority that permitted the parent of a minor to release or waive the minor’s prospective claim for negligence on the minor’s behalf.  Reviewing case law from other jurisdicitions, the Court stated that “although the cases are split on the issue, it is well-recognized that the majority of state courts considering the issue have held a parent may not release a minor’s prospective claim for negligence.”  Therefore, the Court ruled that the parent’s acknowledgment and execution of the Release on behalf of the minor was “of no consequence” and the Release was unenforceable as to the minor.

However, the Court did conclude that the Release was enforceable to bar the cause of action by the parents based upon injury to their child.  The defendant’s motion was denied as to the minor’s claims and granted as to the parents’ claims.

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