Recently, New Jersey’s appellate court secured the interests of minors when it upheld a decision denying forced arbitration between Sky Zone and the mother of a boy who fractured his leg on one of its trampolines. Arbitration, which mandates that disputes be resolved outside the judicial courts system, is a common clause in waivers signed by jumpers before they enter a trampoline (“jump”) park. But as the New Jersey appellate court’s ruling demonstrates, trampoline park waivers and the exculpatory clauses they contain are not always enforceable, depending on the jurisdiction and situation.
As outlined in the appellate court’s decision, in November 2016 Gwendolyn Gayles’ minor son Justin attended a classmate’s birthday party at a Sky Zone trampoline park in Mount Olive, New Jersey. The classmate’s mother, Joan Tongol, drove Justin and the other minor party guests to Sky Zone, where she signed a waiver agreement on their behalf. Included in the waiver was a stipulation for forced arbitration in lieu of a lawsuit if an injury occurred inside the park. At some point during the party, Justin fractured his leg while jumping on a trampoline.
Gayles filed a lawsuit against Sky Zone on the grounds that she never executed a power of attorney authorizing Tongol to sign the waiver for her, thereby rendering it invalid. Sky Zone argued that by allowing Justin to be transported to the party and supervised by Tongol, Gayles had granted Tongol “apparent authority” to sign the waiver and that it was enforceable. The company moved to dismiss Gayles’ lawsuit and force arbitration. A judge denied both motions as well as a reconsideration. Sky Zone then filed an appeal. The lower court’s denials were affirmed by the appeals court.
In the decision opinion authored by Judge Carmen Messano, the appellate court concluded there is no rationale for why “…someone who was not the child’s parent, guardian, or attorney-in-fact possessed the requisite actual or apparent authority to execute a waiver of rights regarding the minor’s personal injury claims.” The court also noted that none of the Sky Zone staff assisted Tongol with completing the waiver, so the company’s claim that it had a “reasonable belief in Tongol’s apparent authority” was unsound. Also rebuffed was Sky Zone’s assertion that the lower court’s ruling placed an “unreasonable burden” on its business operations to obtain individual written consent for every minor jumper. But the appeals court pointed out that Sky Zone could easily “…include a document on its website or as an attachment to its confirmation email” for every parent to sign and return to the facility.
The appellate court’s ruling marks significant progress in holding New Jersey trampoline parks accountable for children injured at their facilities. Although it does not render all New Jersey trampoline park waivers invalid per say, it outlines certain scenarios where they are not enforceable. And while every state has its own laws regarding the legitimacy of trampoline park waivers, this decision is a positive step for the rights of people patronizing these establishments.