Express Release Of Liability By Minor Bars Parents’ Claims

February 1, 2015

If you think that your minor child signing a waiver or release agreement will not affect your rights as a parent and can be set aside when the child becomes an adult, think again.  In Eriksson v. Nunnink, the California Court of Appeal held that a release signed by a minor child and her parent cannot be disaffirmed with the minor turns 18, and the release is an absolute defense to a parents’ subsequent tort and emotional distress claims.

Mia Eriksson, a 17-year old equestrian competitor, hired Kristi Nunnink, a horse riding instructor, to train her to compete in competitions.  Mia and Nunnink entered a release of liability agreement whereby Mia agreed to hold Nunnink harmless from all liability except for damages caused by Nunnink’s direct, willful and wanton negligence. Mia’s mom, Karan Eriksson, also signed the release.  During one competition, Mia fell off the horse and the horse fell on Mia, causing her death while both of her parents were watching.

Mia’s parents, Stan and Karan Eriksson, sued Nunnink for wrongful death and negligent infliction of emotional distress (“NIED”).  Following a bench trial, the trial court found that the release agreement barred the parents’ claims.

In affirming the trial court’s decision, the appellate court noted that unambiguous agreements which release future liability are characterized as an express assumption of the risk that negates a defendant’s duty of care (i.e., the defendant has no duty to protect the plaintiff from an injury-causing risk).  Without a duty, a defendant cannot be charged with negligence. While agreements entered into by minors in California can be disaffirmed before or within a reasonable time after the minor reaches 18 years old, the right to disaffirm a minor’s contract does not extend to releases of liability signed by a parent on the minor’s behalf.  Here, Karan Eriksson’s signature prevented the release from being disaffirmed.

With an enforceable release agreement between Mia Eriksson and Nunnink, the Court then explained that a defendant can owe no greater duty to the heirs than to the decedent. In other words, the release effectively eliminated Nunnink’s duty of ordinary care to Mia and, thus, Nunnink did not owe Mia’s parents any duty of care either.  As such, Nunnink appropriately relied on the release as a defense to both parents’ claims, as it negated the duty element of both the wrongful death claim and the NIED claim.

Practically, this result means that instructors who have their students sign releases of liability will fully protect themselves from liability as to both the participant in the activity and any family members or bystanders who may be watching the activity. Moreover, when instructors are training minor children, it is imperative to get a parent’s signature on the agreement so that it cannot be later disaffirmed and nullified.