For years there has been a debate about churches that have parents/guardians sign release forms. Should they be done? Do they protect the church? And are they legally binding documents? I have wondered about this and have been researching this subject. Finally, there does appear to be an answer.
Let’s begin by looking at the definition of a release form or waiver. “This is a form that is signed by two parties, in which one party releases the other party from liability for a specified risk and duration.” Simply put, this form releases one of the parties from liability in case another party gets hurt.
We have all done this. We have a youth mission trip and before the youth can go on this trip, the parents of said youth must sign this release form. But, let’s be totally blunt, if there is negligence of the party that has been released from liability then this piece of paper will not be worth anything.
So, let’s give a simple illustration. The youth go on a mission trip and they have two vans of youth. The vans travel at 75 miles per hour on a 60 mile per hour highway and they crash. There is negligence and the church, plus others, will be held accountable. That release form will hold absolutely no sway during the court proceedings.
Let’s now look at the legal requirements to have a valid release form. Many courts have noted that release forms are contracts, and as a result, are governed by contract law. This means for a release form to be legally enforceable, it must satisfy the following elements of a valid contract:
Part one: Two or more contracting parties.
A release form is generally a contractual agreement between two parties. This simply means that the church is signing a contract with the parent or some other party.
Part two: Consideration.
In a typical contract, one party is contracting with another party to do a certain thing for the benefit of the other party.
Here is a simple illustration from the world. Party X promised to sell party Y a car for $5,000. The consideration for X’s promise to sell his car is simply that party Y will pay party X $5,000. A contract has been formed.
Now, let’s return to our release form. Our contract is that we, the church, will not do anything to cause harm to our children or youth (we will not be negligent), while the parent releases the church from any injury that results from a non-negligent injury. That is the contract that is entered into with our release forms.
Part three: Mutual Consent.
Simply meaning both parties to the contract must assent to the agreement (contract).
Now let’s look at how the courts have been dealing with release forms. Sad to say, they have not looked favorably upon them. Why? Many courts have come to view these release forms as an attempt to avoid the consequences of negligence. We do not believe this to be true, but the courts have noted that it appears to be true.
So, two items must be true. One, the release form must be in the form of a contract. That is why it is important to have a lawyer look over your release form at least once to make sure that it is a valid contract. Secondly, we the church, must be diligent in finding people who are responsible and are not going to put our children and youth in harm’s way by being negligent.
Finally, minors cannot sign these release documents.