Schools Are Not Immune From Liability For Injuries To Students On Field Trips

With school starting, parents will again be sending their children off on field trips. Part of that process involves the parents signing permission slips that often include language immunizing the school for any injuries to the child that occur during the field trip, including car accidents, drunk driving accidents, truck accidents, train accidents, pedestrian accidents, and premises liability injuries. Luckily for the parents and the children who might be hurt, field trip liability waivers are invalid and unenforceable under Iowa law. 

The Iowa Supreme Court disapproved of field trip liability waivers in the 2010 case of Galloway v. State. Fourteen-year-old Taneia Galloway attended a field trip to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with Upward Bound, a youth outreach program organized by the University of Northern Iowa and the State of Iowa. On the field trip, Galloway was injured when she was struck by a car as she attempted to cross the street. Before leaving on the trip, Taneia's mother signed a form immunizing UNI from all possible personal injury liability. The trial court dismissed the family's personal injury lawsuit because it concluded that Taneia's mother had waived all liability claims when she signed that form.

On appeal the Iowa Supreme Court reversed and concluded that school field trip liability waivers are not valid or enforceable in Iowa. The court framed the issue as "whether public policy considerations should lead us to invalidate preinjury releases given by a parent purporting to waive her minor child's claim for personal injuries." It determined that school field trip liability waivers are unenforceable because they are contrary to Iowa's public policy.

Predictably, the court's primary concern was children and not the rights of parents and schools to voluntarily enter into contracts with each other. The court's chief worry was that parents would immunize schools from personal injury liability but then lack insurance or financial resources to pay for the child's medical care. "By signing a preinjury waiver, a parent purports to agree in advance to bear the financial burden of providing for her child in the event the child is injured by a tortfeasor's negligence. Sometimes parents are not willing or able to perform such commitments after an injury occurs. If parents fail to provide for the needs of their injured children, and the preinjury waiver in favor of the tortfeasor is enforced, financial demands may be made on the public fisc to cover the cost of care." 

The court also noted the difference between holding adults responsible for the consequences of contracts they willingly sign that effect their personal interests and holding children responsible for a contract a parent signs that effects the child's interests. "While this court has found valid policy reasons supporting the rule allowing the enforcement of releases against adults who voluntarily, and in some cases foolishly, waive their own personal injury claims in advance of injury, we believe the strong public policy favoring the protection of vulnerable minor children demands a different rule here." Not only does the child neither have a chance to read nor even understand a liability waiver signed by the parent, but the child, not the parent, is the one who's facing the risk after the parent has signed away the child's legal rights to sue for personal injuries.

Harley Erbe