Releases and Liability in Tennessee

Claims for negligence and premises liability can arise in many situations. A visitor may fall and break a bone while walking around a piece of property.  A participant in a sports game may tweak a knee while playing.  A passenger on an amusement park ride may fail to read all the safety instructions and be bruised or injured during the experience.  Since it can be difficult for a property owner to anticipate all of these types of possible situations, many property and facility owners require visitors and guests to sign waivers, releasing them from liability for any injury that may occur on their property.  Interpreting these waivers and how they may be applied is a source of much discussion in court opinions. While some states interpret these releases to strictly preclude claims of injury, others view them more flexibly. A recent case before the Tennessee Court of Appeals illustrates Tennessee’s approach to the issue of releases and waivers.

In Gibson v. YMCA of Middle Tennessee, Sandra Gibson was injured while entering the YMCA. She tripped on a crack in the sidewalk and fell, leading to injuries.  Prior to that visit, Ms. Gibson had signed an application and membership form to become a member of the YMCA. As part of the application, Ms. Gibson signed a paragraph stating that she waived and released the YMCA from any claims arising from injuries she might incur while using the YMCA’s facilities or programs. Despite signing this release, Ms. Gibson filed a claim for negligence against the YMCA.

The YMCA subsequently filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that it could not be liable for Ms. Gibson’s injuries because she signed a release assuming all risks related to her use of the YMCA property. The trial court acknowledged that Ms. Gibson had signed a release related to all injuries she might incur from using the YMCA’s property, but it held that it was unclear whether this release covered injuries resulting from a faulty sidewalk. Accordingly, it denied the motion.  The YMCA moved for reconsideration of its motion or permission to file an interlocutory appeal. The trial court granted the motion for an interlocutory appeal, and the YMCA appealed the denial of summary judgment.

On appeal, the Tennessee Court of Appeals held that Tennessee law clearly allowed for the enforcement of release clauses like the one signed by Ms. Gibson.  It further held that such releases create an express assumption of risk by the signer, which is an absolute defense to liability in Tennessee. In Ms. Gibson’s case, the court held that she had clearly signed an unambiguous release assuming the risk for any injuries she might sustain while using the YMCA’s facilities, which included falls incurred while on YMCA property.  Since the release was unambiguous, and since Ms. Gibson assumed the risk, the appellate court reversed the lower court decision and granted the motion for summary judgment.

As this decision makes clear, Tennessee law very clearly allows for releases to be strictly interpreted by the courts. Even when a party may not have contemplated the type of injury that actually occurred when signing the release, courts have held that if the injury falls within the unambiguous scope of the release, the release and the assumption of risk that goes with it are a complete barrier to liability. However, it is important to note that when a release is narrowly worded, or confusing and vague in its terminology, a plaintiff may still have a successful claim for injury.

If you have recently been a victim of an injury that you believe involved negligence, and you are concerned about how releases that you have signed may affect your claims, knowledgeable Tennessee premises liability attorney Eric Beasley can assist you in reviewing your options. For more information or to discuss the circumstances of your case, contact the Law Office of Eric Beasley today at 615-859-2223.

Related Blog Posts:

Limiting the Scope of Duties Tennessee Universities Owe To Their Students, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, June 21, 2016.

What Constitutes a Known Dangerous Condition in Tennessee?, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, June 7, 2016.

Personal Injuries and Dirty Bathrooms – Edwards v. CSX Transp., Inc., Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, May 11, 2016.