Waiver and Release: Are You Signing Your Rights Away?

If you've ever participated in an organized ride or race, you probably signed a release—a document that protects the event organizer from liability for negligence if you are injured or killed, or if your bike is damaged. You're typically required to sign the release before you're allowed to participate.

This situation creates a conundrum for cyclists. By signing, you're agreeing to waive some legal rights in the event of injury. But without liability releases there would be few such events, because organizers wouldn't want to assume the legal risk of holding one. When asked, I usually recommend organizers require one.

But what if something goes wrong and you are injured? Signing the release doesn't mean you have no recourse if someone else is at fault. Your options vary depending on what happened and the ride's location.

First of all, any participants not named in the release may be held liable if they played a part in your injury. The parties named in the release are protected, but not from liability for gross or criminal negligence, recklessness or intentional acts—like if an event volunteer does something so reckless that it is almost inevitable riders will be injured.

Even if something unforeseeable happened—for example, a car appeared on a closed course—the release may not protect organizers against the ordinary negligence of a volunteer allowing the car into the ride. And if organizers proffer a release that claims to shield them against liability for all acts, don't worry: Courts have shot down releases claiming such all-encompassing coverage.

In some jurisdictions, releases are essentially worthless. This is because some officials believe as a matter of public policy that letting people escape liability for negligence is a bad idea. So if you get hurt on an organized ride, don't assume you're stuck with the tab.

Waivers 101

Who can't sign? If a rider is younger than 18, his signature on a contract is unenforceable. As for parents who sign a waiver on the child's behalf? That signature is no more legally binding than the child's.

Who is protected? The people and parties named in the release. This typically includes event organizers, officials and volunteers, event sponsors, medical personnel, relevant governmental entities and participating clubs. Some releases may include other riders as well.

Who isn't protected? Any party not named. If another rider not mentioned in the waiver or a driver on an open course causes you to crash, you may have legal rights against those parties.

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