In a recent decision, a Massachusetts Superior Court ruled that a liability waiver, a release of all claims signed before the plaintiff’s decedent participated in a particular program, did not protect the YMCA from a wrongful death claim.
An older gentleman joined the “Silver Sneakers” program at the YMCA, a program designed to entice older members to join the Y. When he did, he signed a liability waiver contained in the program materials. It named the program as a released entity, but it did not name the YMCA as an organization. The court ruled that because the Y was not specifically named, it was not protected by the release. Participation waivers that release an entity or organization from its negligence in a given activity or at a certain location are generally enforceable under Massachusetts law. However, the release must be clear and unambiguous and it will be construed against the entity that drafts it. Also, releases generally only release persons or entities specifically named in the document.
The gentleman who released the “Silver Sneaker” program was ill appearing when he entered the Y, but he was permitted to go into the facility, where he used the steam room. He collapsed in the steam room and suffered severe burns, and he then died weeks later from his injuries. The burns the man suffered were allegedly exacerbated because after the emergency was noticed the Y had difficulty gaining access to the control room where the steam could be shut off. The room was locked and the key was not readily available. The allegations of negligence against the Y were based in part on the inability to access the control room and prevent the severe burns the man suffered.
The superior court permitted the negligence claim to proceed against the YMCA, ruling that the signed release did not bar the wrongful death, negligence and gross negligent claims brought against the Y. The case is Kimberly J. Miller, Executrix v. The Young Men’s Christian Association (Worcester Superior Court, written opinion dated August 29, 2016).