New Jersey High Court Lets Paralyzed Plaintiff Sue, Despite Signed Waiver

Does a signed waiver of liability bar a victim from filing a lawsuit for gross negligence?

Whether you are having surgery, joining a gym, or boarding an amusement park ride, it is not uncommon to sign a waiver of legal liability. A New Jersey man signed one in 2010 before taking a ride at a New Jersey waterpark that resulted in his partial paralysis. Now, six years later, the New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled that his lawsuit for gross negligence can go forward.

After Signing a Waiver, the Plaintiff Is Injured on a Water Park Ride

The plaintiff in the case was trying a ride that simulated surfing at a waterpark in West Berlin, New Jersey. The ride sent an artificial sheet of water toward the rider, to mimic the feeling of surfing an ocean wave.

The plaintiff, who had no experience on the ride, said he was not instructed properly on how to use it safely. He was not told to lie down on the surfboard instead of standing up, and he was not warned that he should not use both hands to hold on to a rope that a park employee also held.

His Waiver Bars Him from Suing for Simple Negligence

Not long after the ride began, he fell, hitting his head and suffering a catastrophic injury to his spinal cord.

The victim filed suit for monetary damages, but his lawsuit was dismissed by both the trial court and an appellate court. Both courts said that, because the plaintiff had signed a waiver before getting on the ride, he could not sue for simple negligence. A suit based on gross negligence could generally go forward despite a waiver, they said. But, in a split decision, the appellate court ruled that a jury could not reasonably find that the defendant’s conduct in this particular case amounted to gross negligence. So the court dismissed the lawsuit.

High Court Allows His Suit to Proceed on a Theory of Gross Negligence

The New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously overturned this decision, interpreting the evidence differently. They felt that a rational jury could possibly conclude that there was gross negligence. The court noted that the water park had not displayed up-to-date safety signs recommended by the manufacturer, which showed the risks of the ride and how to use it safely. The newer signs had stronger warnings and warned of “permanent injuries” and “death.” The signs also recommended that users of the ride watch a safety video. The plaintiff was not shown the video.

Waivers Matter, But They Are Not Always Enforceable

Waivers are serious documents, not to be signed lightly. In this case, the plaintiff admitted he had not even read the waiver he signed. But even if you have signed one, it may not bar a lawsuit in a number circumstances.

If you have been harmed by the negligence of others, an attorney experienced in personal injury can advise you on the best way to proceed. If you signed a waiver, your attorney can explore whether it is enforceable and what legal theories may be available to overcome it.