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Court stretches to enforce pre-injury release executed by volunteer

Teresa Theodore volunteered to work at a racetrack in Oakland County.  On her first day, she was required by the racetrack to execute a release which "waives, discharges and covenants not to sue" for any injuries suffered "arising out of or related to the event(s)" held at the racetrack. An undetermined time later, she was struck by Raymond Horenstein's trailer as he was leaving the paddock area.  She sued Horenstein for her injuries, but his insurer persuaded the trial court that her claim against Horenstein was waived by the release she signed when she agreed to volunteer.  The Court of Appeals agreed.

The Court first noted that under Michigan law, as recently re-interpreted, a release may bar a claim against a defendant who was not a party to the document and who paid no consideration.  It criticized Ms. Theodore's attorneys for failing to address whether the defendant in this case could qualify as a third-party beneficiary of the release and did not require the Defendant to prove that it was, in fact, a member of the class intended to be protected by the original release "agreement." 

The Court also rejected Theodore's argument that by its language and intent, the Release document she signed was intended to apply only to injuries resulting from "the activities of the [race] event(s) [which] are very dangerous and involve the risk of serious injury and/or death..."  The Court found this distinction between the danger represented by the racing events and the relative danger of activities surrounding the races to be unpersuasive.

There was a time when pre-injury releases of this nature were considered poor public policy and at a minimum payment of some form of consideration was required for the court to enforce the subsequent victim's promise not to sue. Today, that public policy is applied, in Michigan, only to claims brought on behalf of children.  Insurers for various commercial activities now insist on the execution of this type of release document by participants, spectators and volunteers, and Michigan courts are far more likely to enforce them, regardless of equity.

Thompson O’Neil, P.C.
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Traverse City, Michigan 49684
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