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City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court - 41 Cal. 4th 747, 62 Cal. Rptr. 3d 527, 161 P.3d 1095 (2007)


Ordinary negligence -- an unintentional tort -- consists of a failure to exercise the degree of care in a given situation that a reasonable person under similar circumstances would employ to protect others from harm. Gross negligence long has been defined in California and other jurisdictions as either a want of even scant care or an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.


Petitioner City of Santa Barbara (California) operated a recreational camp for developmentally disabled children. The application form purported to release the City from liability for any negligent act related to a child's participation in the camp. The parents brought a wrongful death action against the City after their child drowned while at the camp. The trial court denied the City's motion for summary judgment and summary adjudication, and the City petitioned for a writ of mandate challenging the trial court's judgment denying the petition. The City sought appellate review, but the Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, Division Six (California) affirmed the trial court"s judgment. The City then petitioned for further appellate review.


Was the application form signed by the parents to release the city from liability unenforceable?




The court held that an agreement made in the context of sports or recreational programs or services, purporting to release liability for future gross negligence, generally was unenforceable as a matter of public policy. Under case law interpreting Civ. Code, § 1668, an exculpatory clause affecting the public interest could not stand. The distinction between ordinary and gross negligence reflected a rule of policy that harsher legal consequences should flow when negligence was aggravated instead of merely ordinary; thus, public policy generally precluded enforcement of an agreement that would remove an obligation to adhere to even a minimal standard of care. An agreement purporting to release liability for future gross negligence committed against a developmentally disabled child who participated in a recreational camp designed for the needs of such children violated public policy and was unenforceable.

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