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Hojnowski v. Vans Skate Park

July 17, 2006

ANDREW HOJNOWSKI, A MINOR, THROUGH HIS PARENTS AND GUARDIANS AD LITEM, JERRY HOJNOWSKI AND ANASTASIA HOJNOWSKI AND JERRY HOJNOWSKI AND ANASTASIA HOJNOWSKI, IN THEIR OWN RIGHT, PLAINTIFFS-RESPONDENTS AND CROSS-APPELLANTS,
v.
VANS SKATE PARK, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT AND CROSS-RESPONDENT, AND MCCOWN DELEEUW COMPANY, JOHN DOE(S) SKATE PARK OWNER (A FICTITIOUS NAME) AND JANE DOE(S) INSURANCE COMPANY (FOR MED PAY ONLY), DEFENDANTS.



On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 375 N.J. Super. 568 (2005).

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

The issue before the Court is whether a parent can bind a minor child to either a pre-injury waiver of liability or an agreement to arbitrate.

In January 2003, twelve-year-old Andrew Hojnowski was injured while skateboarding at a facility operated by Vans, Inc. (Vans). On a previous visit to the facility, Andrew's mother had executed a release on Andrew's behalf, which was required in order for Andrew to enter the skate park. The exculpatory release contained a clause agreeing to submit any claims against Vans to arbitration, as well as provisions limiting Vans' liability for injury.

In August 2003, Andrew, acting through his parents as guardians ad litem, and his parents, in their own right, filed suit against Vans. Their complaint alleges, among other things, negligent supervision and failure to warn, and negligent failure to provide a safe place. Vans responded by filing a demand for commercial arbitration with the American Arbitration Association. The Hojnowskis then moved to enjoin the arbitration and invalidate the pre-injury release signed by Andrew's mother and Vans cross-moved for summary judgment. The trial court granted Vans' motion, dismissing the Hojnowskis' complaint without prejudice and ordering arbitration. The trial court did not rule on the validity of the liability release, finding the issue for the arbitrators to determine.

On appeal, the Appellate Division unanimously affirmed the trial court's grant of summary judgment in respect of the validity of the arbitration provision. In addition, the panel found that because the issue presented a question of public policy, the trial court should have ruled on the validity of the waiver. The panel was divided in its resolution of that question. The majority determined that a pre-injury release of liability executed by a parent on behalf of a minor child violates public policy and is, therefore, unenforceable. The dissent argued that the court should have deferred to the parent's decision to enter into the agreement and, hence, should have enforced the waiver.

Vans appealed to the Supreme Court as of right on the issue of the validity of the pre-injury release of liability. The Court granted certification on the question of whether a parent can bind a minor child to arbitration.

HELD: Although a parent may agree to bind a minor child to an arbitration provision, which in essence constitutes a choice of forum, a parent may not bind a minor child to a pre-injury release of a minor's prospective tort claims resulting from the minor's use of a commercial recreational facility.

1. Because exculpatory agreements can encourage a lack of care, courts closely scrutinize liability releases and invalidate them if they violate public policy. The relevant public policy implicated in this case is the protection of the best interests of the child under the parens patriae doctrine, which refers to the State's capacity as provider of protection to those unable to care for themselves. In keeping with that doctrine, the Legislature and the courts have historically afforded considerable protections to claims of minor children. The most significant of those protections concerns the compromise or release of a minor's post-injury claims, requiring the parent to obtain statutory or judicial approval to dispose of the minor's existing cause of action. The purpose underlying the post-injury settlement rule also applies in the pre-injury context. (Pp. 9-15)

2. Business owners owe invitees a duty of reasonable or due care to provide a safe environment because it is the business owners who are in the best position to control the risk of harm. In this case, the risk of loss should fall on the party best suited to avert injury. The operator of a commercial recreational enterprise can inspect the premises for unsafe conditions, train staff in respect of the facility's proper operation, and regulate the types of activities permitted to occur. The business operator can also obtain insurance and spread the costs of insurance among its customers. Children are not in a position to discover hazardous conditions or insure against risks. In addition, the expectation that a commercial facility will be reasonably safe is especially important where the patron's are minors. To permit waivers of liability would remove a significant incentive for operators of these types of facilities that attract children to take reasonable steps to protect their safety. The overwhelming majority of jurisdictions are in accord with the decision to invalidate such waivers. (Pp. 15-19)

3. In view of the protections that New Jersey historically has afforded to a minor's claims and the need to discourage negligent activity on the part of commercial enterprises attracting children, a parent's execution of a pre-injury release of a minor's future tort claims arising out of the use of a commercial recreational facility is unenforceable. (P.19)

4. Vans' remaining contentions are unconvincing. Van's argument that allowing a pre-injury release of a minor's potential tort claim is no different than a parent's decision never to bring suit on the child's behalf ignores the tolling provisions enabling a minor to retain the right to sue for most personal injuries for two years after reaching the age of majority. Nor does the Court accept the argument that the parental release implicates the parent's fundamental right to direct the upbringing of the child. Nor is the Court persuaded by the argument that such releases are necessary to ensure the continued validity of businesses offering sports activities to minors. Tort liability is not an unreasonable economic restraint on the ability of business owners to operate commercial recreational facilities. (Pp. 19-23)

5. Federal policy has favored the enforcement of arbitration agreements for many years. In New Jersey, arbitration is also a favored means of dispute resolution. An agreement to arbitrate generally will be valid under State law unless it violates public policy. Allowing a parent to bind a minor child to arbitrate future tort claims is not contrary to the Court's duty as parens patriae to protect the best interests of the child. A pre-injury agreement to arbitrate does not require the minor to give up any substantive rights; rather, it specifies only the forum in which those rights are redressed. Furthermore, permitting arbitration of a minor's claims is consistent with New Jersey case law discussing the enforceability of arbitration agreements that affect the rights of children. Case law from other jurisdictions reinforces this conclusion. (Pp. 23-31)

Judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED and the matter is referred to an arbitrator for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

JUSTICE LaVECCHIA, concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which JUSTICE RIVERASOTO joins, is in full agreement with that portion of the majority's decision that affirms the enforcement of the parties' agreement to subject their dispute to arbitration. Justice LaVecchia dissents from the majority's invalidation of the waiver of liability that the parties executed as a condition of the minor's use of Van's property to skateboard. Because the type of waiver entered into in this case generally would be enforceable as against an adult, there is no reason why this Court should prevent a parent from ratifying such a waiver on behalf of the minor, provided that a court or arbitrator determines that the release is reasonable.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES LONG, ALBIN, and WALLACE join in JUSTICE ZAZZALI'S opinion. JUSTICE LaVECCHIA filed a separate opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which JUSTICE RIVERA-SOTO joins.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Zazzali

Argued January 30, 2006

In this appeal, we must determine whether a parent can bind a minor child to either a pre-injury waiver of liability or an agreement to arbitrate. In January 2003, twelve-year old Andrew Hojnowski was injured while skateboarding at a skate park facility operated by defendant Vans, Inc. (Vans). On a previous visit to the facility, Andrew's mother had executed a release on Andrew's behalf. That release contained a clause agreeing to submit any claims against Vans to arbitration, as well as a provision limiting Vans' liability. After Andrew and his parents (plaintiffs) brought suit seeking recovery for Andrew's injuries, Vans filed for commercial arbitration. Plaintiffs then moved to enjoin arbitration and to invalidate the liability release signed by Andrew's mother.

The trial court found that plaintiffs were bound by the arbitration provision and dismissed their complaint without prejudice. The court declined to rule on whether the liability release was valid, concluding that that issue should be determined by the arbitrator. On appeal, the Appellate Division unanimously voted to uphold the arbitration provision but divided on the validity of the liability release. The majority determined that a pre-injury release of liability executed by a parent on behalf of a minor child violates public policy and is therefore unenforceable. The dissent argued that the court should have deferred to the parent's decision to enter into the agreement and enforced the waiver. We affirm the majority and hold that although a parent may agree to bind a minor child to an arbitration provision, which in essence constitutes a choice of forum, a parent may not bind a minor child to a pre-injury release of a minor's prospective tort claims resulting from the minor's use of a commercial recreational facility. Pursuant to our parens patriae duty to protect the best interests of the child, we will not enforce such a release in the context of this case.

I.

In January 2003, twelve-year old Andrew Hojnowski and his mother, Anastasia Hojnowski, visited a Vans Store in Moorestown, New Jersey. Defendant Vans operated the retail store that sold skateboards and related merchandise and maintained a recreational skateboard facility. To enter the skate park, Vans required Andrew's mother to sign an exculpatory release. It appears that Andrew's mother did not execute a release on the date in question but had executed a release in December 2002, which Vans had kept on file.

The release, entitled "RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILTY AND JURY TRIAL WITH INDEMNITY (FOR ALL VANS SKATEPARKS, STORES AND FACILITIES (COLLECTIVELY, 'PARKS') IN NEW JERSEY)," begins by stating:

Please read this document. It affects Your legal rights against Vans, Inc. if you are injured. Do not sign this document unless you understand it. If You are a minor, Your parent or guardian is required to sign this legal document.

The document then provides, in relevant part:

2. Can You Make A Claim For Money If You Are Injured?

If you are injured and want to make a claim, you must file a demand before the American Arbitration Association (the "AAA"). . . . You agree that any dispute between You and Vans will be decided by the AAA. Vans, Inc. will pay all costs of the arbitration for You. . . .

3. Vans Is Asking You To Give Up Legal Rights in Order to Enter This Park

Because using Vans' Park, or even entering the Park as a spectator may increase your risk of harm, Vans is asking you to give up certain valuable legal rights. Here are the rights you are giving up when you sign this document:

(a) You give up your right to sue Vans in a court of law.

(b) You give up your right to a trial by jury.

(c) You give up the right to claim money from Vans if you are injured unless Vans intentionally failed to prevent or correct a hazard ...


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