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A Better Partnership
June 21, 2010

MSC Opinion: Woodman v. Kera LLC

In Woodman v. Kera LLC, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that a preinjury liability waiver signed by a parent on behalf of his or her child are not enforceable under common law because, absent special circumstances, a parent has no authority to bind his or her child by contract. The Court unanimously voted to affirm the result of the Court of Appeals decision, with four justices voting to uphold the Court of Appeals' reasoning. Justice Young wrote the lead opinion joined, for the most part, by Chief Justice Kelly and Justices Hathaway and Weaver. Justice Cavanagh concurred in the result, albeit because he believed that the poorly drafted release did not apply. Justices Corrigan and Markman also concurred in the result, but dissented from the reasoning of the lead opinion and would have held that a parental preinjury waiver is enforceable.

The case arose after a five-year-old broke his leg while celebrating his birthday at Bounce Party, an indoor play area that contains inflatable play equipment. Before the party, the boy's father signed a liability waiver on the boy's behalf. The boy's mother sued defendant Kera LLC, which operates Bounce Party, for negligence, gross negligence, and violation of the Michigan Consumer Protection Act. The trial court granted summary disposition to Kera LLC on the negligence claim because of the release. The plaintiff appealed.

The Court of Appeals concluded that under Michigan common law, a parent qua parent does not have authority to waive, release, or compromise claims of his or her child. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals held that release was not valid and reversed the trial court's summary disposition order.

The Michigan Supreme Court granted leave to consider whether the parental preinjury waiver was valid and enforceable. The Court began its analysis by noting that a preinjury waiver is a contract, and that under Michigan law, had the boy executed the waiver, it would not be enforceable against him because he is a minor. The Court therefore framed the issue as whether a minor can be bound by a contract signed on his or her behalf by a third party, specifically, a parent. The Court stated, "the Michigan common law rule is clear: a guardian, including a parent, cannot contractually bind his minor ward." Based on this rule, the Court found the resolution of the issue straightforward--the boy's father had no authority to bind his son to the preinjury liability waiver. Justice Young was joined by Chief Justice Kelly and Justices Weaver and Hathaway for this portion of the opinion. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeals.

Justice Young continued to examine whether the common law should be changed and concluded it should not. He suggested that Michigan businesses might seek parental indemnity agreements in lieu of preinjury liability waivers.

Justice Hathaway wrote a concurring opinion stating that she too believed that the common-law rule was justified and should not be changed but indicating that she did not join Section III(B) of Justice Young's opinion. Chief Justice Kelly and Justice Weaver joined Justice Hathaway's concurrence.

Chief Justice Kelly separately concurred to note that she did not believe Justice Young's suggestion regarding the use of parental indemnification agreements was problematic.

Justice Cavanagh separately concurred to affirm the Court of Appeals' result. The release was poorly drafted and referred to the waiver of claims of the "undersigned." As one might expect, the undersigned was the boy's father, not the boy. Accordingly, Justice Cavanagh would have vacated the decision of the Court of Appeals but affirmed the result because the release did not waive the claims of the boy.

Justice Markman authored a lengthy concurrence stating he too would have vacated the Court of Appeals' reasoning but affirmed the result because the waiver did not effect the boy's contractual rights. Justice Markman went on to contend that Michigan common law does permit the enforcement of a parental preinjury waiver. Justice Corrigan joined Justice Markman's opinion.

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