Kirton v. Fields, No. SC07-1739.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Florida
Writing for the CourtQuince
Citation997 So.2d 349
PartiesScott Corey KIRTON, etc., et al., Petitioners, v. Jordan FIELDS, etc., et al., Respondents. Dean Dyess, Petitioner, v. Jordan Fields, etc., et al., Respondents. H. Spencer Kirton, et al., Petitioners, v. Jordan Fields, etc., et al., Respondents.
Decision Date11 December 2008
Docket NumberNo. SC07-1742.,No. SC07-1741.,No. SC07-1739.
997 So.2d 349
Scott Corey KIRTON, etc., et al., Petitioners,
v.
Jordan FIELDS, etc., et al., Respondents.
Dean Dyess, Petitioner,
v.
Jordan Fields, etc., et al., Respondents.
H. Spencer Kirton, et al., Petitioners,
v.
Jordan Fields, etc., et al., Respondents.
No. SC07-1739.
No. SC07-1741.
No. SC07-1742.
Supreme Court of Florida.
December 11, 2008.

[997 So.2d 350]

William J. Wallace of William J. Wallace, P.A., Okeechobee, FL, Richard Lee Barrett and Ralph Steven Ruta, of Barrett, Chapman and Ruta, P.A., Orlando, FL, and Alan C. Espy of Alan C. Espy, P.A., Palm Beach Gardens, FL, for Petitioners.

Timothy J. Owens of Christensen, Christensen, Donchatz, Kettlewell, and Owens, LLP, Columbus, OH, on behalf of The American Motorcyclist Association, for Amicus Curiae.

Bard d. Rockenbach of Burlington and Rockenbach, P.A., West Palm Beach, and Laurence C. Huttman of Rubin and Rubin, Stuart, FL, for Respondents.

QUINCE, C.J.


We have for review the decision of the Fourth District Court of Appeal in Fields v. Kirton, 961 So.2d 1127 (Fla. 4th DCA 2007), which certified the following question to be of great public importance:

WHETHER A PARENT MAY BIND A MINOR'S ESTATE BY THE PRE-INJURY EXECUTION OF A RELEASE.

We have jurisdiction. See art. V, § 3(b)(4), Fla. Const.1 For the reasons discussed below, we answer the certified question in the negative and hold that a parent does not have the authority to execute a pre-injury release on behalf of a minor child when the release involves participation in a commercial activity.2

997 So.2d 351
STATEMENT OF THE CASE AND FACTS

The instant action arises from the decision by the Fourth District Court of Appeal in Fields v. Kirton, 961 So.2d 1127 (Fla. 4th DCA 2007). The facts of the underlying action were detailed in the opinion of that court:

Pursuant to a final judgment of dissolution of marriage, Bobby Jones was the primary residential parent for his fourteen year old son, Christopher. On May 10, 2003, the father took Christopher to Thunder Cross Motor Sports Park to ride his all terrain vehicle (ATV). To gain entry to the facility and be allowed to participate in riding the ATV, Bobby Jones, as Christopher's natural guardian, signed a release and waiver of liability, assumption of risk, and indemnity agreement. While attempting a particular jump, Christopher lost control of his ATV, causing himself to be ejected. Tragically, he hit the ground with the ATV landing on top of him. He got up, walked a short distance, then collapsed and died. Christopher's mother, Bette Jones, was unaware that the father was permitting their son to engage in this activity. She was also unaware that approximately one month prior to the accident causing Christopher's death, he had attempted the same jump, resulting in a fractured rib and mild concussion.

Id. at 1128.

Subsequently, Fields, as personal representative of the estate of Christopher Jones, filed suit for wrongful death against Spencer Kirton, Scott Corey Kirton, Dudley Kirton, and the Kirton Brother Lawn Service, Inc. ("the Kirtons") as owners and operators of Thunder Cross Motor Sports. The amended complaint also named Dean Dyess as a defendant for his participation in the management of the park. The Kirtons then filed an answer and affirmative defenses to the amended complaint. In one of the affirmative defenses, the Kirtons argued that the claims raised by Fields were barred by the release and waiver executed by Mr. Jones on behalf of his son. The Kirtons thereafter filed a motion for summary judgment based on the release and waiver.3 The trial court entered an order granting the Kirtons' motion for summary judgment on the wrongful death claim, finding that there was no genuine issue of material fact because the release executed by Mr. Jones on behalf of his minor child, Christopher, barred the claim.

On appeal, the Fourth District reversed the trial court's order granting the motion for summary judgment. In doing so, the district court emphasized that the issue was not about a parent's decision on what activities are appropriate for his or her minor child, which is properly left to the parent. Instead, the issue concerned the "decision to absolve the provider of an activity from liability for any form of negligence ... [which] goes beyond the scope of determining which activity a person feels is appropriate for their child." Id. at 1129. This is because the "effect of the parent's decision in signing a pre-injury

997 So.2d 352

release impacts the minor's estate and the property rights personal to the minor." As a result, the district court found that these rights could not be waived by the parents absent a basis in common law or statute. Id. at 1129-30. The district court found that there was no statutory scheme governing the issue of pre-injury releases signed by parents on behalf of minor children. Because there is no basis in common law or statute, the district court found that the courts do not have the authority to "judicially legislate that which necessarily must originate, if it is to be law, with the legislature." Id. at 1130. Accordingly, the district court held that a parent could not bind a minor's estate by the parent's execution of a pre-injury release. In doing so, the Fourth District also certified the above question to be of great public importance and certified conflict with the Fifth District Court of Appeal's decision in Lantz v. Iron Horse Saloon, Inc., 717 So.2d 590 (Fla. 5th DCA 1998).

ANALYSIS

The issue in this case is the enforceability of a pre-injury release executed by a parent on behalf of a minor child that binds a minor child's estate and releases an activity provider from liability. Because the enforceability of the pre-injury release is a question of law arising from undisputed facts, the standard of review is de novo. See D'Angelo v. Fitzmaurice, 863 So.2d 311, 314 (Fla.2003) (stating that the standard of review for pure questions of law is de novo and no deference is given to the judgment of the lower courts).

The Kirtons and the amicus curiae4 supporting their position assert that a parent has a fundamental right to make decisions relating to the care of a minor child, and that right includes executing a pre-injury release on behalf of the minor child. The Kirtons also argue that enforcing the validity of a pre-injury release is consistent with Florida courts that have ruled that a parent has the prelitigation right to forego settlement awards in favor of pursuing a lawsuit without court approval or appointment of a guardian ad litem. On the other hand, Fields contends that pre-injury releases are invalid because neither the common law nor the Legislature has given parents the authority to waive these substantive rights of a minor child.

Parental Authority and the State's "Parens Patriae" Authority

The enforceability of a pre-injury release concerns two compelling interests: that of the parents in raising their children and that of the state to protect children. Parental authority over decisions involving their minor children derives from the liberty interest contained in the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and the guarantee of privacy in article I, section 23 of the Florida Constitution. See Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57, 66, 120 S.Ct. 2054, 147 L.Ed.2d 49 (2000) (plurality opinion) ("In light of this extensive precedent, it cannot now be doubted that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment protects the fundamental right of parents to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of their children."); see also Beagle v. Beagle, 678 So.2d 1271, 1275 (Fla.1996) ("The fundamental liberty interest in parenting is protected by both the Florida and federal constitutions. In Florida, it is specifically protected by our privacy provision."). In fact, beginning with Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390, 43 S.Ct. 625, 67 L.Ed. 1042 (1923), the United States Supreme Court has recognized that parents have a constitutionally protected interest in child rearing. In Troxel, the

997 So.2d 353

United States Supreme Court further pointed to a presumption that

fit parents act in the best interests of their children.... Accordingly, so long as a parent adequately cares for his or her children (i.e., is fit), there will normally be no reason for the State to inject itself into the private realm of the family to further question the ability of that parent to make the best decisions concerning the rearing of that parent's children.

530 U.S. at 68-69, 120 S.Ct. 2054; see also Von Eiff v. Azicri, 720 So.2d 510, 514 (Fla.1998) ("Neither the legislature nor the courts may properly intervene in parental decision-making absent significant harm to the child threatened by or resulting from those decisions.").

However, these parental rights are not absolute and the state as parens patriae may, in certain situations, usurp parental control. In Global Travel Marketing, Inc. v. Shea, 908 So.2d 392, 399 (Fla.2005), we explained the concept of parens patriae as applied in this State:

"Parens patriae," which is Latin for "parent of his or her country," describes "the state in its capacity as provider of protection to those unable to care for themselves." Black's Law Dictionary 1144 (8th ed.2004). The doctrine derives from the common-law concept of royal prerogative, recognized by American courts in the form of legislative prerogative. See Alfred L. Snapp & Son, Inc. v. Puerto Rico ex rel. Barez, 458 U.S. 592, 600, 102 S.Ct. 3260, 73 L.Ed.2d 995 (1982). The United States Supreme Court, upholding a state child labor law in Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158, 64 S.Ct. 438, 88 L.Ed. 645 (1944), recognized the parens patriae power when it stated that although the "custody, care, and nurture of the child reside first in the parents, ... the state as parens patriae may restrict the parent's control by requiring school attendance, regulating or prohibiting the child's...

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46 practice notes
  • BJ's Wholesale Club, Inc. v. Rosen, No. 99
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Maryland
    • 27 Noviembre 2013
    ...as that from New Jersey, Hojnowski v. Vans Skate Park, 187 N.J. 323, 901 A.2d 381 (2006), and Florida, [80 A.3d 350]Kirton v. Fields, 997 So.2d 349 (Fla.2008), to bolster its conclusion that an agreement entered into by a parent barring a future negligence claim asserted by a child against ......
  • Sanislo v. Give Kids the World, Inc., No. SC12–2409.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Florida
    • 12 Febrero 2015
    ...or negligent acts—is a question of law arising from undisputed facts. Thus, the standard of review is de novo. See Kirton v. Fields, 997 So.2d 349, 352 (Fla.2008) (citing D'Angelo v. Fitzmaurice, 863 So.2d 311, 314 (Fla.2003) (stating that the standard of review for pure questions of law is......
  • Woodman v. Llc, Docket No. 137347.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Michigan
    • 18 Junio 2010
    ...that Michigan's gross domestic product has declined each year since 2005), available at (accessed June 3, 2010). 47 See Kirton v. Fields, 997 So.2d 349, 357 (Fla., 2008). ("If the parent cannot afford to bear that burden, the parties who suffer are the child, other family members, and the p......
  • Blackwell v. Sky High Sports Nashville Operations, LLC, No. M2016–00447–COA–R9–CV
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Tennessee
    • 9 Enero 2017
    ...organizations that provide "sporting, recreational, educational, and other activities where certain risks may exist"); Kirton v. Fields, 997 So.2d 349, 358 (Fla. 2008), somewhat superseded by Fla. Stat. Ann. § 744.301 (permitting a parent to waive a child's future cause of action only as to......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
46 cases
  • BJ's Wholesale Club, Inc. v. Rosen, No. 99
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Maryland
    • 27 Noviembre 2013
    ...as that from New Jersey, Hojnowski v. Vans Skate Park, 187 N.J. 323, 901 A.2d 381 (2006), and Florida, [80 A.3d 350]Kirton v. Fields, 997 So.2d 349 (Fla.2008), to bolster its conclusion that an agreement entered into by a parent barring a future negligence claim asserted by a child against ......
  • Sanislo v. Give Kids the World, Inc., No. SC12–2409.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Florida
    • 12 Febrero 2015
    ...or negligent acts—is a question of law arising from undisputed facts. Thus, the standard of review is de novo. See Kirton v. Fields, 997 So.2d 349, 352 (Fla.2008) (citing D'Angelo v. Fitzmaurice, 863 So.2d 311, 314 (Fla.2003) (stating that the standard of review for pure questions of law is......
  • Woodman v. Llc, Docket No. 137347.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Michigan
    • 18 Junio 2010
    ...that Michigan's gross domestic product has declined each year since 2005), available at (accessed June 3, 2010). 47 See Kirton v. Fields, 997 So.2d 349, 357 (Fla., 2008). ("If the parent cannot afford to bear that burden, the parties who suffer are the child, other family members, and the p......
  • Blackwell v. Sky High Sports Nashville Operations, LLC, No. M2016–00447–COA–R9–CV
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Tennessee
    • 9 Enero 2017
    ...organizations that provide "sporting, recreational, educational, and other activities where certain risks may exist"); Kirton v. Fields, 997 So.2d 349, 358 (Fla. 2008), somewhat superseded by Fla. Stat. Ann. § 744.301 (permitting a parent to waive a child's future cause of action only as to......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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