Contracts Limiting Ability to Sue

If you intend to bring a claim for negligence or bodily injury, or pretty much anything, there may be a contract you had signed previously, which creates a defense to your claims, whether you realize it or not.

Any time you plan on suing someone or some entity (a company, business, or governmental entity) for anything, it is always a good idea to track down any prior agreement you may have signed to see how it could impact your rights. You might not even remember signing something. If, for example, you were injured while skiing, and want to sue the ski resort failing to maintain the skis you rented, for example, then you might be surprised to learn that you had signed a written contract upon renting the skis, which limited your rights before you even sit on a chair lift.

This concept — of a contract limiting rights to sue for negligence — came up in the news recently, when former students of Milton Hershey School (a boarding school) claimed to be injured by the school. The case was filed in federal court in Pennsylvania. Judge Christopher C. Conner agreed with Hershey that its relationship with minor students was governed — and potentially limited by — by a contract.

There, the parents had allegedly signed a four-page “enrollment agreement” with Milton Hershey School when their children enrolled in the school. The enrollment agreement could be interpreted to limit the right of parents and students to sue the school for conditions at school and alleged damages sustained to children from school activities. Regardless of how the above case plays out on appeal, or otherwise — given that it is fairly early in the case — parties to any dispute should consider whether any document they signed could limit their rights.

Each case should be viewed in context, however. The above case involves a school, serving a public function, and there can be a public policy reason to shield certain organizations from liability — to encourage institutions that provide a public benefits, even though this was not the express reason for the above decision. No case exist in a vacuum. Every case turns on its particular facts and circumstances.

The key take away point here is, anytime you have a claim for negligence or for injuries, or any allegation that someone or some entity has wronged you, first consider whether you have endorsed any agreement that effect your rights in the situation. There may be defenses to your claim based on a writing. In order for your lawyer to fully advise, he or she much see all relevant documents, to fully assess your chances for success in court.

We also see this in the context of settlement and release agreements that release more claims than the injured party realizes.  Let’s say, for example,you are injured in a car accident caused by both the conduct of another driver who “t-boned” you, and the conduct of PennDOT, which designed the intersection in a manner that made it dangerous.  If you decide to settle with the negligent driver, you need to read your settlement agreement very carefully, as it may also release your claims against PennDOT even though you are not ready to release those.  In this way, again, a prior document you signed may come up to haunt you.  This is precisely why, whenever you are asked to sign anything, you should have a contract law lawyer review the agreement to not only advise you what the agreement means, but also about the impact the document could have on your future claims that you may not be contemplating.

Our Pittsburgh lawyers are available to answer a couple questions for free to help determine what kind of representation we can offer.  We consider claims for breach of contract that can come up in any dispute. Even if you do not hire use, consider doing a google search of “pittsburgh lawyer contract,” or “pittsburgh lawyer breach of contract,” to find a lawyer, or google your local county bar association for a lawyer in your area, as many county bar associations have referral services, to allow the public to find a lawyer to at least read over a contract.  Click here for the Allegheny County Bar Association lawyer referral line.


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