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Under Massachusetts Law Parties Cannot Waive the Right to Recover for Gross Negligence

People are often asked to sign waivers before engaging in activities that may be perceived as dangerous. Under Massachusetts personal injury law, signing such a waiver generally precludes the person who signed the waiver from pursuing a negligence claim against the released party. In Cahalane v. Skydive Cape Cod, however, the Appeals Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts held that it would not prevent the injured party from recovering for any gross negligence in contravention of the terms of the agreement.

In Cahalane, Plaintiff engaged Defendant’s services to go on a tandem skydive jump. Prior to embarking on her jump, Plaintiff signed a waiver in which she released any claims against Defendant for negligence or gross negligence. Plaintiff was permitted to purchase a release from the waiver, but chose not to do so. During the jump, Plaintiff was attached to an instructor. As they approached the ground the instructor performed a hook turn. Hook turns are disapproved of in skydiving safety bulletins, as they are a leading cause of death and injury in skydiving. Due to the manner in which the pair landed, both of Plaintiff’s femurs were fractured on impact. Plaintiff sued Defendant, alleging negligence and gross negligence. Defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, arguing that the waiver barred Plaintiff’s claims. The trial court granted Defendant’s Motion and Plaintiff appealed, arguing the waiver was induced by fraud and was unenforceable. On appeal, the court held that the waiver was enforceable and precluded Plaintiff’s negligence claim but ruled that it did not bar Plaintiff’s gross negligence claim.

The court noted that Plaintiff was given ample opportunity to review the waiver and did not produce evidence that anyone made any false representations to her regarding the waiver. As such, the court held it was enforceable. The court noted, however, that while Massachusetts law favors the enforcement of releases for liability for negligent acts, a party cannot immunize itself from liability for grossly negligent or reckless acts. The court explained that gross negligence is more than a failure to exercise ordinary care and was better explained as great negligence, or conduct without any diligence or care. The court noted each case must be analyzed on its facts to determine if the defendant’s actions were grossly negligent, but additionally noted that a moment of inattentiveness in a dangerous situation could constitute gross negligence. As such, the court held that the question of whether Defendant was grossly negligent and therefore liable to Plaintiff could not be decided via summary judgment but must be submitted to a jury.

If you signed a waiver and subsequently suffered injuries due to the gross negligence of the released party, you may still be able to pursue a claim against them. You should seek the assistance of a knowledgeable personal injury attorney to assess your claim and determine whether there are exceptions to your waiver that would enable you to recover compensation. At Karsner & Meehan our personal injury attorneys have the skills and experience to help injured parties recover the damages to which they are entitled. Contact our office at 508-822-6600 to schedule a free and confidential consultation.

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