How a Waiver Agreement Can Cost You in Your California Auto Accident Injury Suit

signature-630x464Before you sign a waiver agreement, it is important to understand just how broad that agreement’s coverage is. In a recent case before the California Court of Appeal, a man injured in an auto accident was not allowed to sue the driver at fault for the accident, nor the owner of the vehicle, because the accident was a “related activity” that was covered by a waiver the man signed with a religious-based substance abuse recovery home where he was residing at the time.

The accident occurred when David Richardson, an employee of In His Steps Christian Recovery Home, Inc., drove one of the home’s participants, Robert Murphy, to the DMV to get a state ID card, which Murphy needed in order to apply for public assistance. On their way to the DMV branch, Richardson ran a red light and crashed into another vehicle. Murphy was injured in the accident. Murphy sued Richardson, the home, and one of the home’s board members (who owned the van in which Murphy and Richardson were riding when the accident occurred) for negligence. The home, the employee, and the board member asked the trial court to issue a summary judgment in their favor. Murphy could not win his case, they asserted, because he had signed a waiver when he first entered the home’s program, and that waiver provision prohibited him from launching any lawsuits, such as this one, related to the home’s “help and assistance given … or related activities.”

The trial court agreed and awarded a summary judgment in favor of the home. Murphy appealed, arguing that the waiver was ambiguous and violated California public policy. The judgment against Murphy survived, though. The waiver was neither ambiguous nor in violation of public policy. Murphy argued that the breadth of the phrase “related activities” was unclear as to whether it included off-site transportation services.

The home’s waiver in this case was very broad, but that alone was not enough to make it ambiguous and unenforceable. The waiver, though broad, was clear: it covered everything connected to Murphy’s availing himself of┬áthe home’s religion-based sober living program. One part of availing himself to the use of the program, which was explicitly included in the waiver, was Murphy’s applying for public assistance to help curtail the cost of his stay at the home. When Murphy was injured, he was on his way to obtain a document (his state ID card) that was mandatory in order to allow him to apply for public aid. Based upon the plain meaning of the waiver, Murphy was involved in an activity related to involvement with the program, so the waiver applied to these injuries.

The public policy argument also did not succeed. The law does restrict waivers like the one Murphy signed, declaring that they are only valid in certain situations. Waivers can be void if they relate to a business that is “suitable for public regulation,” a business that offers “services of great importance to the public,” or if the business provides its services to any member of the general public.

None of these criteria applied to Murphy’s circumstance. The main services offered were religious support and shelter for people recovering from substance abuse. It did not employ licensed counselors and was not an officially recognized treatment program. Because the home primarily offered spiritual aid and not counseling and therapy by licensed professionals, it was not a facility subject to public regulation and its services were not greatly important to the public. Similarly, the home limited the people in its program to those interested in its Christian-oriented type of assistance, meaning that it was not available to any member of the public.

The courts have upheld these types of waivers with similar reasoning in the past. In 1997, the appeals court decided that the waiver senior citizens signed prior to participating in recreational activities at the YMCA was an enforceable agreement.

The Oakland injury attorneys at the Law Offices of Stephen M. Fuerch can help you with your auto accident injury case. Whether it’s analyzing and assessing your case, pre-trial actions, or taking your case to trial, our injury attorneys have many years of helping injury victims just like you. Contact us through our website or call our office at (925) 463-1073 to schedule your confidential initial consultation today.

More Blog Posts:

Introducing Settlement Agreements in California Auto Accident Cases, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, Sept. 30, 2015

Be Wary of the Release Agreements You Sign as Part of Your California Personal Injury Case, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, May 29, 2015