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Published in Print: June 19, 2002, as Mass. High Court Says Liability Waiver Protects District

Mass. High Court Says Liability Waiver Protects District

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Liability waivers for school activities are in fact worth more than the paper they're printed on, Massachusetts' highest court ruled last week.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court threw out a lawsuit filed on behalf of a high school cheerleader who fell off the top of a cheerleading "pyramid" and broke her arm. As a condition of the girl's participation in cheerleading, her father had signed a release that waived liability on the part of the city of Newton and its 11,000-student school system.

The Supreme Judicial Court ruled unanimously on June 10 that the family's lawsuit seeking damages should be dismissed because the student, Merav Sharon, and her father "had ample opportunity to read and understand the release before signing it, and they are therefore deemed to have understood it."

Administrators and school law experts in Massachusetts and elsewhere were watching the case closely because some recent lawsuits have challenged the idea that waivers for school activities truly protect schools from liability.

"We all give parents these field trip releases and athletic-liability releases," said Julie Underwood, the general counsel of the National School Boards Association, based in Alexandria, Va. "It is very comforting for schools to know that they are still protected by them."

Rejected Reasoning

Ms. Sharon was a 16-year-old student at Newton North High School with four years of cheerleading experience in 1995 when she fell and fractured her arm, requiring surgery. Her father sued the city of Newton, which runs the school system, for negligence in state court.

A trial judge issued a summary judgment for the city, citing the liability waiver signed by Mr. Sharon. The state high court took up the case on its own motion and also ruled for the city.

The plaintiffs had argued that there were public-policy reasons for not enforcing such releases. For instance, they contended that waivers undermine the duty of care that public schools owe their students. The high court, in its opinion last week, rejected that line of reasoning.

The court noted that Massachusetts exempts nonprofit athletic groups and volunteer coaches from liability for participants' injuries. Public schools are entitled to the same protections, it said.

Vol. 21, Issue 41, Page 3

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