Parent cannot sign away child's rights, Colorado court rules.
The supreme courts of Utah and Washington state previously ruled similarly. (Parents Cannot Contract Away Child's Right to Sue, TRIAL, Feb. 2002, at 96.) But the Colorado decision is important, said Martin Freeman of Aspen, Colorado, who represented the plaintiffs, because of the large recreational industry in the state.
In 1995, 17-year-old David Cooper was actively involved in competitive skiing with the Aspen Valley Ski Club, Inc. At the beginning of the season, his mother signed a liability release form. Months later, while training for a high-speed alpine race, Cooper fell and collided with a tree. His severe injuries included blindness in both eyes.
Cooper and his father filed a negligence suit against the ski club and the coach, John McBride, who had moved the training run to an unfamiliar course and allegedly failed to put up proper safety netting. The trial court, in granting summary judgment for the defendants, ruled that the mother's signature on the release form bound her son to its terms and barred his claims. The appeals court affirmed.
The supreme court disagreed, noting that the state has an important interest in protecting minors. "In the tort context especially, a minor should be afforded protection not only from his own improvident decision to release his possible prospective claims for injury based on another's negligence, but also from unwise decisions made on his behalf by parents who are routinely asked to release their child's claims for liability." (Cooper v. Aspen Skiing Co., 48 P.3d 1229 (Colo. 2002).)
In addition, the court said, a parent "may not indemnify a tortfeasor for negligence committed against [a] minor child," because shifting the financial responsibility for damages to the parent would create an "unacceptable conflict of interest" between parents and minors.
Freeman said the ruling will have a lasting impact on premises law because "now children's rights are being protected."
Howard Davidson, director of the ABA Center on Children and the Law, said of the ruling: "By viewing a minor's negligence claim as a children's rights issue rather than as a parental control issue, the court's decision sends a strong message about the continued importance of governments--and the courts--acting with vigilance to protect the well-being of children."
The decision, he added, "should prompt reminders to those responsible for programs serving children that careful and continued supervision, proper staff and volunteer training, appropriate responses to complaints, and adherence to accepted standards all remain critically important."