Wagenblast v. Odessa Sch. Dist.

110 Wash. 2d 845, 758 P.2d 968 (1988)



The test to determine whether exculpatory agreements violate public policy includes six factors. It concerns a business of a type suitable for public regulation. The party seeking exculpation performs a service of great public importance, which is often a matter of practical necessity for some people. The party holds himself out as willing to perform this service for any person, or at least for any person coming within established standards. As a result of the service's essential nature, the party invoking exculpation possesses a decisive advantage of bargaining strength against any person who seeks his services. In exercising a superior bargaining power the party confronts the public with a standardized adhesion contract of exculpation, and makes no provision whereby a purchaser may pay additional reasonable fees and obtain protection against negligence. As a result of the transaction, the person or property of the purchaser is placed under the control of the seller, subject to the risk of carelessness by the seller or his agents.


In separate actions, public school students sought the invalidation of school district requirements that they sign forms releasing the district from all future claims for negligence as a condition of their participation in interscholastic athletics. The plaintiff parents, in two separate actions, sought injunctions. The Superior Court granted the plainitffs motion for summary judgment and enjoined the school district from requiring the releases in the Lincoln County action but denied  injunctive and declaratory relief in the King County action. The Supreme Court affirmed the grant of summary judgment in favor of the Lincoln County plaintifss and reversed the denial of the King County plaintiffs.


Is a written release from any future school district negligence invalid because it violates public policy?




Upon this consolidated appeal, the court held that the releases were invalid as against public policy. The court applied six factors to determine that the exculpatory agreements violated public policy. The court found that interscholastic sports were extensively regulated and were a matter of public importance. Given the emphasis on sports by the public and the school system, it was unrealistic to expect students to view athletics as an activity entirely separate and apart from their schooling. The programs were open to all students who met the skill and eligibility standards, and there was no alternative program of organized competition. Student athletes and their parents had no alternative but to sign the release or be barred from the program. The student athlete was placed under the school coach's control and subject to the risk that the school district would breach its duty of care. The court cautioned that its holding did not include risks other than that of the school's negligence. To the extent that the releases represented consents to relieve the school districts of their duty of care, they were invalid whether they were termed releases or express assumptions of risk.

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