17 May 2018

Kentucky Court Delivers Blow to Church Release Forms

Founder Raul Rivera

With the summer months quickly approaching, many churches are preparing to take short-term missions trips. Additionally, many church youth groups will be going to summer camps.

While these trips are fun and serve a greater purpose, participants are still susceptible to accidents and injuries.

Because accidents can happen at any moment, many churches require all participants in such activities to complete and submit medical permission and release forms.

Such forms are intended to help protect participants and release the church of any liability in the event one gets injured.

However, do release forms actually hold up in court?

A Kentucky court* recently ruled that a minor who was injured during her church’s summer camp program could not be prevented from suing the church even though her mother signed the church’s release form.

So what happened, and what do you and your church need to know prior to your next church trip?

What a court said about release forms

Prior to leaving for the church youth camp all participants received an information packet about the upcoming trip. Included in the packet was the church’s medical permission and release form.

The church’s medical and release form requested the participant’s name and address, the guardian’s name and phone number, as well as information regarding immunizations, allergies, medications taken by the participant, and childhood diseases.

In small print on the same form, under the heading, “PERMISSION FOR TREATMENT,” the form stated:

“My permission is granted for the [Name of Church] Minister to Families, church official, or any church staff or adult chaperone present or in charge of First Aid, to obtain necessary medical attention in case of sickness or injury to my minor child named above while at or while traveling to or from any [Name of Church] youth activity. This release shall be valid from today's date through [specified date}. I, the undersigned, do hereby verify that the above information is correct and I do hereby release and forever discharge all sponsors and employees of [Name of Church] from any and all claims, demands, actions or cause of action, past, present, or future arising out of any damage or injury while participating in events sponsored by [Name of Church]."

At some point during the trip the plaintiff was pushed in the face by another camper when the plaintiff entered a room uninvited and wouldn’t leave. This resulted in the plaintiff receiving a bloody nose, and she called her mom.

The chaperones who examined the plaintiff’s face and nose did not see any signs of injury.

Later that evening, the plaintiff’s mother drove her to a hospital where she received an x-ray and was offered pain medication. A few days later the plaintiff was seen by her family physician because the pain had still not subsided.

The family physician referred the plaintiff to an ear, nose, and throat specialist, and in December 2007, the plaintiff underwent nose surgery.

When the plaintiff turned eighteen, she sued her church alleging negligence for failure to supervise the youth group during the camp and failure to train and/or have proper access to medical care.

The trial court granted summary judgement in favor of the church; however, the plaintiff appealed.

A state appeals court reversed the summary judgment, holding that the release forms signed by the mother prior to the church’s camp did not prevent the plaintiff’s personal injury claim for the following reasons:

  • the releases did not mention negligence,
  • the releases did not explicitly release the church from liability for personal injuries caused by its own conduct, and
  • a reasonable construction of the releases was that it only released the church from vicarious liability in connection with any medical treatment, and the release did not specify the type of harm contemplated.

So, what does this mean for your church, and what should you and your church consider before the next church trip?

(Recommended reading: "Church Liability Insurance: One Step, Huge Relief""

How to minimize liability on church trips?

Although release forms in and of themselves cannot totally protect a church from liability in instances when minors get injured on church trips or at church related events, it is still best practice to have.

However, from the court case above, there are several important keys to having the best possible release forms in place, such as:

  • Make sure your release forms are specific and not ambiguous.
  • Include “negligence” in your release forms.
  • Have the release explicitly release the church from liability for personal injuries caused by its own conduct.

In addition, consider including additional consent forms such as parental permission and medical consent forms.

Best practice would be for your church to only allow minors to participate in church-related activities if their parents or guardians have completed and signed such forms.

These documents should clearly indicate to parents and guardians that by signing and allowing their child(ren) to participate, they are:

  • consenting to let their child(ren) participate in the specified activity,
  • certifying that their child is able to participate in said event, and
  • authorizing a designated individual to make emergency medical decisions in the event that they (i.e., parents or guardians) cannot be reached.

As well, in the form, parents and guardians should include any allergies or medical conditions that may be relevant to medical personnel in the event of an emergency, and they should indicate any activities that they do not want their child to participate in.

Don’t forget to protect leaders and volunteers from liability

To help protect leaders and volunteers who are acting on behalf of the church, many churches will include a clause in their bylaws to shield their members and volunteers from possible litigation.

This clause is known as an Indemnification Clause.

To indemnify means “to protect (someone) by promising to pay for the cost of possible future damage, loss, or injury.” This means the church can step in and pay for fees and damages that may be related to church events or activities.

One key to remember regarding indemnification is that your church must be incorporated to provide this protection to your staff, members, and volunteers.

Although many of the people who serve in your organization are likely unaware of this protection, it can be of great value. If you are looking to recruit more volunteers, this might be something to highlight in the recruitment process.

Likewise, if you are trying to establish your board of directors for the initial launch of your church, this can be a valuable tool to promote and explain.

If this is not something your church has in place, give us a call at 877-494-4655, and we’ll answer any questions you have about this clause.

And if you’re in need of a liability release form and/or a medical permission and release form, call us, and we’ll be happy to send them to you.

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Citation:

  • Grego v. Jenkins, 527 S.W.3d 50 (Ky. Ct. App. 2017)

Please feel free to comment. We always appreciate good dialogue. However, we do moderate each comment to ensure that it is on topic and not derogatory to other participants. We ask that you keep your comments brief and pertinent to the topic so that others may benefit.

Blessings,
Raul Rivera


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