Exculpatory agreements in youth sports programs

Youth participation in school sports can be very rewarding, for the child and the parent. 

However, when injuries occur, a parent’s concern about the seriousness of the injury will soon take center stage. 

If an injury is particularly severe, the issue of legal responsibility becomes important. 

Exculpatory agreements in youth sports programs play a substantial role in determining the extent of liability, if any, the school or sports program may have.

What is an exculpatory agreement?

An exculpatory agreement is a contract, or a provision in a contract, that stipulates that one party is relieved from liability under certain situations of wrongdoing or from the performance of a contract.  Exculpatory agreements are also referred to as waiver/release agreements.

The purposes of exculpatory agreements

The purposes of this type of agreement in the youth sports area are twofold.  First, the agreement is meant to excuse a sports organization or school for its simple negligence.  Second, in most cases, the agreement provides direct evidence of warnings to the child and parents of inherent and other risks involved in participating in the sport.  This warning will typically provide an indisputable basis for the common-law assumption of risk defense.

Are exculpatory agreements always upheld?

Exculpatory agreements will only be upheld if certain conditions are satisfied:

  • The injury arises from risks stated in the agreement or from the sports organization’s simple negligence.
  • The agreement is properly drafted or worded according to the law in the state of the sports organization or school
  • It does not violate any state laws or public policy.

Only when all of these conditions are met, is it likely that the exculpatory agreement can be used as a defense against a lawsuit.

Excusing negligence when the injured party is a minor

When it comes to waivers and releases involving minors, each state has its own laws governing their validity.  The difference is that minors are not considered to be legally competent to enter into a binding contract, such as an exculpatory agreement.  So, the only way for a minor to be bound would be through a parent’s signature on the waiver/release. Even then, most states do not allow a parent to contractually waive their minor children’s right to sue for a sports-related injury.

Schools have a general duty of care to its students

There is also a standard of care that public and private schools must satisfy in protecting the students under their care.  As such, a high school would have a legal duty to exercise reasonable care toward its students, including the duty of coaches and athletic trainers to exercise reasonable care for the health and safety of student athletes.

Be aware of changes in the law

Exculpatory agreements and their validity are a developing area of the law.  The same three conditions that apply for upholding adult exculpatory agreements also apply to parental exculpatory agreements.  In addition, the language in the agreement must be scrutinized under the same degree of strictness.

If you have questions regarding youth sports injuries, or any other catastrophic injury concerns, call the Cottrell Law Office at (888) 433-4861.

Author Photo

Wesley Cottrell

Wes Cottrell earned his B.A. from Pittsburg State University in 1981 and his J.D. from the Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kansas in 1985. He was admitted to practice law in Kansas in 1986, in Missouri in 1987, in Arkansas in 1989, and Oklahoma in 1993. He is licensed to practice law in the United States District Court for the District of Kansas, eastern Arkansas, western Arkansas, and western Missouri. He was Deputy Prosecuting Attorney in Crawford County, Kansas from 1987-1989.

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