If you have recently gone to an amusement park, played a group sport, or rented a mountain bike, you likely signed a waiver before you were allowed to participate in any of those activities. That waiver informed you of your rights and asked you to assume the risk of the activities you were undertaking so that others could not be held liable for any injuries that you might experience. Sometimes, these types of waivers will also ask individuals to waive their right to certain claims, like negligence claims, before participating. A recent case before the Tennessee Court of Appeals looked at whether it was permissible for a transportation operator to require that its clients waive any right to negligence claims.
In this Tennessee personal injury case, F.C. was 77 and recovering from a total knee replacement when he needed to visit his doctor for a follow-up appointment. Since he could not drive, his hospital, HealthSouth, arranged for a transportation service to pick him up, take him to his appointment, and take him back home. The transport van was owned by a company called MedicOne. Prior to using MedicOne’s services, F.C. was required to sign a waiver that specifically released MedicOne from any claims arising from negligence by MedicOne or its related parties. F.C. signed the waiver. After his appointment, while F.C. was being picked up, he fell when getting back into the MedicOne van and re-injured his knee. F.C. later sued MedicOne for negligence because it failed to use reasonable care in transporting F.C. In its Answer and a later Motion to Dismiss, MedicOne pointed to the waiver signed by F.C. and the release provision that released MedicOne from any potential claims. The trial court agreed and dismissed F.C.’s claims. F.C. appealed.
On appeal, F.C. argued that the waiver in the MedicOne agreement was unconscionable and invalid because MedicOne was a professional provider of transportation services, and professionals generally cannot require their clients to waive negligence claims. Under Tennessee law, exculpatory clauses in agreements with professionals can be invalidated when the professional is providing a service that is valuable and necessary to the public, and, as a result, the professional holds an unfair bargaining position. For example, Tennessee courts have held that doctors cannot require patients to release the doctor from liability for claims that may arise while medical services are being conducted, since the patient is at an unfair disadvantage while seeking the assistance of the doctor. F.C. argued that a similar standard should apply in his case to invalidate MedicOne’s agreement.