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Signing Away Your Lawsuit Rights

When Derek Dearnley applied for a season pass at his local ski slope at the end of 2009, he didn’t take the time to read the fine print on the contract.  His signature cost him his lawsuit against the ski resort that he filed after he broke his back on a hidden jump.

Dearnley’s wife had been working for the ski resort, and as one of her benefits, she and her immediate family were allowed to apply for a free season pass at the resort.  The contract that Mr. Dearnley signed stated in bold print that it contained a release. It indeed contained very clear wording:

I further release and give up any and all claims and rights that I may now have against Mountain Creek Resort, Inc. . .

When the lower court ruled against him, Dearnley appealed.  The appellate court affirmed the previous court’s opinion.  The court upheld the release under two main arguments:

  1. That invalidating the release simply because Dearnley signed without reading the fine print “would signal judicial mistrust of our citizens’ ability to intelligently enter contracts.”   In other words, courts trust people’s intelligence and won’t get involved in undoing contracts just because people make mistakes entering into them.
  2. That even though some contractual clauses can be invalidated if they are contracts of adhesion —where one party dictates the terms and the other party has no choice but to accept them — this is only the case where the substance of the agreement is also unconscionable.  Dearnley’s release doesn’t qualify because both Dearnley and the ski resort entered freely into the agreement.  In other words, an agreement has to be really, truly unfair in order for the court to consider invalidating it.

The lesson to take from Dearnley’s mistake is to read the fine print.  If you have questions about whether you are signing away your rights in a contract, we would be happy to review the contract for you and give you our professional legal opinion.

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