Sanislo v. Give Kids the World, Inc., No. SC12–2409.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Florida
Writing for the CourtPER CURIAM.
Citation157 So.3d 256
PartiesStacy SANISLO, et al., Petitioners, v. GIVE KIDS THE WORLD, INC., Respondent.
Decision Date12 February 2015
Docket NumberNo. SC12–2409.

157 So.3d 256

Stacy SANISLO, et al., Petitioners
v.
GIVE KIDS THE WORLD, INC., Respondent.

No. SC12–2409.

Supreme Court of Florida.

Feb. 12, 2015.


157 So.3d 258

Christopher Vincent Carlyle and Shannon McLin Carlyle of The Carlyle Appellate Law Firm, The Villages, FL; and Michael J. Damaso, II of Wooten, Kimbrough & Normand, P.A., Orlando, FL, for Petitioners.

Dennis Richard O'Connor, Derek James Angell, and Matthew J. Haftel of O'Connor & O'Connor, LLC, Winter Park, FL, for Respondent.

Bard Daniel Rockenbach of Burlington & Rockenbach, P.A., West Palm Beach, FL, for Amicus Curiae Florida Justice Association.

Opinion

PER CURIAM.

This case is before the Court for review of the decision of the Fifth District Court of Appeal in Give Kids the World, Inc. v. Sanislo, 98 So.3d 759 (Fla. 5th DCA 2012), in which the Fifth District held that an exculpatory clause was effective to bar a negligence action despite the absence of express language referring to release of the defendant for its own negligence or negligent acts. The district court certified that its decision is in direct conflict with the decisions of the First, Second, Third, and Fourth District Courts of Appeal in Levine v. A. Madley Corp., 516 So.2d 1101 (Fla. 1st DCA 1987) ; Van Tuyn v. Zurich Am. Ins. Co., 447 So.2d 318 (Fla. 4th DCA 1984) ; Goyings v. Jack & Ruth Eckerd Found., 403 So.2d 1144 (Fla. 2d DCA 1981) ; and Tout v. Hartford Accident & Indem. Co., 390 So.2d 155 (Fla. 3d DCA 1980). We have jurisdiction. See art. V, § 3(b)(4), Fla. Const. For the following reasons, we approve the Fifth District's decision in Give Kids the World and disapprove the decisions of the First, Second, Third, and Fourth District Courts of Appeal.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

This action arose as a result of a negligence action brought against Give Kids the World, Inc., (Give Kids the World), a non-profit organization that provides free “storybook” vacations to seriously ill children and their families at its resort village,1 by Stacy and Eric Sanislo, a married couple who brought their seriously ill child to the village, for injuries sustained by Ms. Sanislo while on the vacation.

As part of the application process for the “storybook” vacation, the Sanislos filled out and signed a wish request form, which contained language releasing Give Kids the World from any liability for any potential cause of action. After the wish was granted, the Sanislos arrived at the resort village located in Kissimmee, Florida, and again signed a liability release form. The wish request form and liability release form both provide, in pertinent part:

I/we hereby release Give Kids the World, Inc. and all of its agents, officers,
157 So.3d 259
directors, servants, and employees from any liability whatsoever in connection with the preparation, execution, and fulfillment of said wish, on behalf of ourselves, the above named wish child and all other participants. The scope of this release shall include, but not be limited to, damages or losses or injuries encountered in connection with transportation, food, lodging, medical concerns (physical and emotional), entertainment, photographs and physical injury of any kind....
I/we further agree to hold harmless and to release Give Kids the World, Inc. from and against any and all claims and causes of action of every kind arising from any and all physical or emotional injuries and/or damages which may happen to me/us....

While at the resort village, the Sanislos and their children participated in the horse-drawn wagon ride operated by Heavenly Hoofs, Inc. The wagon, manufactured by codefendant Thornlea Carriages, Inc., was equipped with a rear, pneumatic lift to allow those in wheelchairs to participate in the ride. The carriage was carrying the Sanislos' children. The Sanislos stepped onto the wheelchair lift of the wagon to pose for a picture and the lift collapsed due to weight overload, causing injuries to Ms. Sanislo's left hip and lower back.

The Sanislos subsequently brought suit in the circuit court for Osceola County against Give Kids the World alleging Ms. Sanislo's injuries were caused by Give Kids the World's negligence. See id. at 761. Give Kids the World asserted an affirmative defense of release, and filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that the Sanislos signed releases that precluded an action for negligence. Id. The Sanislos also filed a motion for partial summary judgment on Give Kids the World's affirmative defense of release. The trial court granted the Sanislos' motion for summary judgment and denied Give Kids the World's motion for summary judgment. Thus, the negligence action proceeded to trial. Following a jury verdict, judgment was entered in the Sanislos' favor awarding them $55,443.43 for damages incurred as a result of the injury and costs of $16,448.61.

On appeal to the Fifth District, Give Kids the World argued that the lower court erred by denying its pretrial motion for summary judgment on its affirmative defense of release because the release was unambiguous and did not contravene public policy. The Fifth District reversed the trial court's denial of summary judgment, holding that an exculpatory clause releasing Give Kids the World from liability for “any and all claims and causes of action of every kind arising from any and all physical or emotional injuries and/or damages which may happen to me/us” barred the negligence action despite the lack of a specific reference to “negligence” or “negligent acts” in the exculpatory clause. Id. at 761–62. The Fifth District reasoned that exculpatory clauses are effective if the wording of the exculpatory clause is clear and understandable so that an ordinary and knowledgeable person would know what he or she is contracting away, and that the court had previously rejected “ ‘the need for express language referring to release of the defendant for “negligence” or “negligent acts” in order to render a release effective to bar a negligence action.’ ” Id. at 761 (quoting Cain v. Banka, 932 So.2d 575, 578 (Fla. 5th DCA 2006) ). The Fifth District also held that the bargaining power of the parties should not be considered because it was outside of the public utility or public function context and the Sanislos were not required to request

157 So.3d 260

a vacation with Give Kids the World or go on the vacation.

In Levine, Van Tuyn, Goyings, and Tout, the remaining four district courts of appeal held that exculpatory clauses are ineffective to bar a negligence action unless there is express language referring to release of the defendant for its own negligence or negligent acts. Accordingly, the conflict presented for this Court's resolution is whether an exculpatory clause is ambiguous and thus ineffective to bar a negligence action due to the absence of express language releasing a party from its own negligence or negligent acts.

The Sanislos argue that express language regarding negligence is necessary to render an exculpatory clause effective to bar an action for negligence because this Court has held that indemnification agreements, which are similar in nature to an exculpatory clause, require a specific provision protecting the indemnitee for its own negligence in order to be effective. Further, the Sanislos argue that an ordinary and knowledgeable person does not expect a release to relieve a party from liability for failure to provide reasonable care; thus, any document intending to do so must include specific, unambiguous language to that effect. Give Kids the World, however, argues that use of the term “negligence” should not be required because: (1) the term “liability” is more readily understandable than “negligence” to an ordinary and knowledgeable person; (2) the language of this exculpatory clause would be rendered meaningless if found ineffective; (3) indemnification agreements and exculpatory clauses serve different purposes and involve differing allocations of risks; and (4) this rule has been rejected by many states. For the reasons discussed below, we hold that an exculpatory clause is not ambiguous and, therefore, ineffective simply because it does not contain express language releasing a defendant from liability for his or her own negligence or negligent acts; such an approach could render similar provisions meaningless and fail to effectuate the intent of the parties.

ANALYSIS

The issue presented—the enforceability of a pre-injury exculpatory clause that does not contain express language releasing a party of liability for its own negligence 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 de novo and no deference is given to the judgment of the lower courts)).

Public policy disfavors exculpatory contracts because they relieve one party of the obligation to use due care and shift the risk of injury to the party who is probably least equipped to take the necessary precautions to avoid injury and bear the risk of loss. ...

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