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Tripping accident lawsuit thwarted by release written into membership application

feet on sidewalkProperty owners and business operators owe certain duties to those who come onto their premises for a business or social purpose. A breach of this duty can potentially result in a finding of liability against the landowner and an award of damages in favor of an injured party. This is most commonly referred to as a “slip and fall” case, in which someone is injured because of property that isn’t maintained, such as a cracked sidewalk or other similar issue.

For this reason, it is increasingly common for would-be defendants to ask for a waiver of liability from those with whom they do business. It is up to the courts to determine whether such waivers are valid under the facts of an individual case.

Facts of the Case

In Gibson v. Young Men’s Christian Association of Middle Tennessee, the plaintiff was injured when she tripped on a sidewalk outside the defendant recreational facility in 2013. She filed suit, alleging that the sidewalk was cracked or uneven, thus causing her fall. The defendant sought summary judgment, urging that the plaintiff had expressly assumed the risk of her injuries when she signed a membership application. The trial court denied the defendant’s motion, and it filed an interlocutory appeal.

Holding of the Court of Appeals of Tennessee at Nashville

The appellate court reversed the trial court’s order and remanded the case with instructions to enter summary judgment in the defendant’s favor. The court first noted that exculpatory agreements are enforceable in Tennessee and are interpreted under the rules of contract law. The court found that the agreement signed by the plaintiff unambiguously released the defendant from all liability stemming from the plaintiff’s use of the defendant’s facility, even for injuries caused by the defendant’s negligence.

Although the plaintiff argued that she did not contemplate tripping and falling on a sidewalk when she executed the release document, the court found that this was immaterial. The court noted that the plaintiff had not preserved the issue of whether the trial court erred in finding that she was “using the facilities” at the time of her injury. Had this issue been before the appellate court, the end result could possibly have been different, but an appellate court is only allowed to rule on the issues that are properly preserved for appeal.

The harsh result in this case highlights the importance of thoroughly reading documents before signing them, especially documents with words like “waiver” or “release” in their titles. If a particular facility requires a waiver of liability, this means that the signer may not be able to recover compensatory damages resulting from injuries caused by the facility’s negligence. A person who is not willing to accept this risk (and bear the expense of any injuries that result during the activity) should not sign the waiver.

For Advice About Your Personal Injury Claim

The Kentucky and Tennessee personal injury and wrongful death attorneys at English, Lucas, Priest & Owsley can help you determine whether you have a cause of action against an allegedly negligent individual, governmental entity, or business owner. We regularly handle tripping accident cases. For a free consultation in our Bowling Green offices, call us at (270) 781-6500. We assist clients throughout south central Kentucky and middle Tennessee, including in Nashville, Franklin, and Springfield.

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