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Hojnowski v. Vans Skate Park - 187 N.J. 323, 901 A.2d 381 (2006)

Rule:

In New Jersey, arbitration is a favored means of dispute resolution. The New Jersey Legislature has codified its endorsement of arbitration agreements in the New Jersey Arbitration Act, former N.J. Stat. Ann. §§ 2A:24-1 to -11 (current version at N.J. Stat. Ann. §§ 2A:23B-1 to -32), which, like its federal counterpart, provides that agreements to arbitrate shall be valid save for such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of a contract, former N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2A:24-1. In accordance with those principles, an agreement to arbitrate generally will be valid under state law unless it violates public policy.

Facts:

In Jan. 2003, plaintiff A.H., who was then 12 years, was injured while skateboarding at a facility operated by defendant Vans Skate Park (Vans). On a previous visit to the facility, A.H.'s mother had executed a release on A.H.'s behalf, which was required in order for him to enter the skate park. The exculpatory release contained a clause agreeing to submit any claims against Vans to arbitration, as well as provisions limiting Vans' liability for injury. In Aug. 2003, A.H., acting through his parents as guardians ad litem, and his parents, in their own right (collectively, the Hojnowskis), filed suit in New Jersey state court against Vans. Their complaint alleged, among other things, negligent supervision and failure to warn, and negligent failure to provide a safe place. Vans responded by filing a demand for commercial arbitration with the American Arbitration Association. The Hojnowskis then moved to enjoin the arbitration and invalidate the pre-injury release; Vans filed a cross-motion for summary judgment. The trial court granted Vans' motion, dismissing the Hojnowskis' complaint without prejudice and ordering arbitration. The trial court did not rule on the validity of the liability release, finding that the issue was for the arbitrators to determine. On appeal, the appellate division unanimously affirmed the trial court's grant of summary judgment with respect of the validity of the arbitration provision. The court also held that the trial court should have ruled on the validity of the waiver. Thus, the court ruled that a pre-injury release of liability executed by a parent on behalf of a minor child violated public policy and was unenforceable. Vans appealed.

Issue:

Was the arbitration provision valid?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

Under the parens patriae doctrine, the public policy of New Jersey prohibited a parent of a minor child from releasing the child's potential tort claims arising out of the use of a commercial recreational facility. But under the public policy expressed in the New Jersey Arbitration Act, a parent's agreement to arbitrate was enforceable against any tort claims asserted on the minor's behalf, in the absence of fraud, duress, unconscionability, or ambiguity. Thus, the state supreme court affirmed the judgment of the intermediate appellate court and referred the matter to the arbitrator for further proceedings.

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