If you’re the parent of a K-12 student, you’ve probably been asked to sign permission slips for your child’s participation in extracurricular activities, including field trips, school sports, cheerleading, and band practice. These forms almost always include some type of waiver—language that releases the school from liability (legal responsibility) if your child is hurt during the activity.
If you don’t sign the release, your child may not be allowed to participate. If you do sign, you’re basically agreeing not to sue the school when your child is hurt during the activity. But what if a coach or other school employee was to blame for the injury? Can you still sue? As with many legal questions, the answer is: It depends.
Agreeing to Normal Risks in Athletics and Other Extracurricular Activities
Permission slips usually include a description of the activity and the normal or inherent risks involved. For instance, playing football and other sports comes with inherent risks of injury like sprains and even concussions. Schools can’t afford lawsuits every time a student is hurt. So they want to make sure that parents understand and accept the inherent risks of extracurricular activities. And courts have generally allowed schools to bar students’ participation in voluntary athletic programs and other school-related activities if their parents refuse to sign “informed consent” forms releasing the schools from liability for these normal injuries.
Can Parents Get Out of Releases From Liability for Negligence?
Sometimes, students’ injuries aren’t a result of the inherent risks involved in the extracurricular activity. Instead, they may happen because the coaches or other school employees were negligent by not providing proper supervision or equipment. For example, a school might be negligent if a student was hurt because:
- a coach refused to take a soccer player out of a game after the student was hit in the head and complained of dizziness
- the school didn’t provide football players with proper helmets, or
- first-graders went on a field trip without enough teacher-chaperones to keep an eye on them.
Under these circumstances, some states might allow lawsuits filed by the parents or the students themselves, even if they signed a release. Several factors affect whether courts will invalidate parental releases from liability for negligence, including:
- The activity involved. Courts are less likely to allow schools to avoid liability for negligence, even when the parents signed a release, if the activity is considered an important part of the educational experience. For instance, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that public schools couldn’t require parents and students to sign forms that released the schools from liability for negligence, as a condition for participating in interscholastic sports and other activities that were an important part of public education. (Wagenblast v. Odessa School Dist. No. 105-147-166J, 758 P.2d 968 (Wash. 1988).)
- The law in your state. Courts in different states have differing views on this issue. In Iowa, for example, the state’s supreme court allowed children to sue for injuries resulting from negligence during an educational field trip, even though their parents had signed release forms (Galloway v. State, 790 N.W.2d 252 (Iowa, 2010)). In some other states, courts or the legislatures have ruled out similar lawsuits. For instance, California law says that anyone who goes on a school field trip will be considered to have waived any claims against the school for injuries (Cal. Educ. Code § 35330(d)).
- The reason for the injury. There’s a difference between run-of-the mill negligence—failing to take reasonable care—and “gross negligence,” which generally means extreme or deliberate recklessness. Even in states where courts block lawsuits based on negligence if the parents have signed a release, they’ll usually allow lawsuits (and not enforce the releases) when the parents or students claim that the injuries happened because of the schools’ gross negligence.
- The language in the release. If parents signed a release that wasn’t clear or was worded in a way that lay people wouldn’t be able to understand it, courts may allow them to go forward with a lawsuit despite the release.
Talking to a Lawyer
If you’re not comfortable signing a release that your child brings home from school, it might be a good idea to speak with an education lawyer who can look over the form and advise you about the consequences of signing. If you already signed a release and your child was injured while participating in the activity, you’d be wise to consult with an attorney as soon as possible. A lawyer who’s experienced in education or personal injury law should be able to explain your legal options, how the law and courts in your state treat releases like the one you signed, the rules in your state on schools' immunity from lawsuits, and whether you might have a claim for negligence against someone other than the school (such as the maker of faulty sports equipment or the owner of a museum where your child went on a field trip).