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Exculpatory Agreements Often Protect Negligent Business Owners

Many business owners try to avoid liability for negligence and personal injury by demanding their customers sign exculpatory agreements. Such an agreement releases the business owner from any liability for injuries or damages sustained on its premises. While there are some cases where Tennessee courts will not enforce such exculpatory clauses, they are generally legal.

Sidewalk Accident Covered by Waiver in Membership Application

For example, in a recent case the Tennessee Court of Appeals dismissed a personal injury lawsuit due to an enforceable exculpatory agreement. The plaintiff in this case was a member of a local not-for-profit health club. One day as she was heading into the club, she tripped and fell on crack in the sidewalk located approximately 20 feet from the front door. As a result, the plaintiff said she suffered a serious injury.

Normally a business owner can be held liable for unsafe conditions on its premises such as a defective sidewalk. But in response to the plaintiff’s personal injury lawsuit, the club moved for summary judgment on the basis of an exculpatory agreement. More specifically, when the plaintiff applied for membership in the club, the application included a paragraph that stated she waived the club and its employees “from any and all responsibility or liability for injuries or damages resulting from” the use of the club’s facilities or participation in any of its activities. In other words, by signing the membership application, the club said the plaintiff assumed all responsibility for any injuries she sustained.

Before the trial court, the plaintiff argued this exculpatory clause should not apply to an injury sustained on the sidewalk outside of the club. The judge agreed this was at least a disputed issue that should be presented to a jury. The club disagreed and appealed.

And in fact, the Court of Appeals sided with the club and dismissed the plaintiff’s lawsuit. The appeals court said there was nothing “ambiguous” about the exculpatory agreement here—the plaintiff expressly waived her right to sue for any injury arising from her use of the club, which included “entering the facilities.” And “[i]n Tennessee, express assumption of the risk is a complete defense to liability,” the court said.

Have I Signed Away My Right to Sue?

There are, however, cases where a Tennessee will not enforce an exculpatory agreement on “public policy” grounds. For instance, the Tennessee Supreme Court has held exculpatory clauses in residential landlord-tenant leases are unenforceable. Likewise, the Supreme Court has ruled against doctors who attempt to enforce liability waivers against injured patients.

If you have been injured due to the negligence of a business owner or service provider, it is important to understand your legal rights and how they may be affected by any previous agreement you were asked to sign. You may have signed away to right your sue without realizing it. You may also be confused as to whether a liability waiver you signed is enforceable under Tennessee law. An experienced Knoxville personal injury lawyer can advise you on this and other aspects of the law. Contact the offices of Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette, Attorneys at Law, to speak with someone about your case right away.

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