Liability shields are often used by schools and other youth programs as a strategy for managing risks.  The use and value of liability shields, however, is often misunderstood.  When properly used, “...liability shields can be worth more than the paper they are written on (Nonprofit Risk Management Center, 1996, p. 1).”  When conducting youth programs, a liability shield becomes a legally non-binding contract between the sponsoring organization and the participant’s parent or guardian; especially when an attempt is being made to sign away the legal rights of youth.

The four most common types of liability shields include: permission slips, informed consent forms, waivers and releases, and indemnification agreements.  Each of these will be defined and explained.  An example of the type of liability shield recommended by the University of Kentucky is included at the end of this section.

Permission Slips

Permission slips describe an activity in which a youth will be involved.  When signed by the youth participant’s parent or guardian, a permission slip indicates the adult’s knowledge of and consent for the child to participate in the activity (Seidman & Patterson, 1996).  Permission slips do not absolve the sponsoring organization of any liability, but they do provide a form of protection.  A permission slip, signed by a parent/guardian, indicates the parent’s knowledge of and consent to the child’s participating in the activity (Seidman & Patterson, 1996).  A parent who is aware of the his or her child’s whereabouts and involvement in activities and is more involved in deciding if the child will participate may be less inclined to shift blame to the sponsoring organization in case of an accident or loss.

Informed Consent Forms

An informed consent form describes in greater detail the activity and specific risks to the youth who participate in the activity.  Informed consent forms do not absolve the organization of any liability, but they do provide a level of protection.  An informed consent form can undercut or block a lawsuit based on a claim that Extension somehow infringed upon the parent’s authority, control, or custody of the child (Nonprofit Risk Management Center, 1996; Seidman & Patterson, 1996; Tremper & Kostin, 1993).

Waivers or Releases

A waiver or release is signed by participants who are of legal age or by parents or guardians of minors.  By signing a waiver or release, the participant (or the parent/guardian) signs away the right to sue the organization in the event of an injury, damage, or loss (Seidman & Patterson, 1996.)  Waivers or releases are of greatest value when signed by participants who are also of legal age.  Kentucky law does not generally permit a parent or guardian to waive the rights of his or her children of legal age.  In most cases an organization can not be excused for negligence.  As with the permission slip or an informed consent form, both the activity to be undertaken and its possible risks must be identified in the waiver or release. Regardless of their legal validity, waivers can: (a) encourage all parties to recognize and discuss the possible risks, (b) take appropriate precautions, and (c) be used in a lawsuit as evidence of an attempt by the sponsoring organization to inform the participants and their parents/guardians of the possible risks (Ellis, Weisbord & Noyes, Tremper & Kostin, 1993). 

Indemnification Agreement

Any person, group, or organization signing an indemnification agreement with an organization agrees to assume financial responsibility for claims brought against the sponsoring organization (Seidman & Patterson, 1996).  Parents or guardians who sign an indemnification agreement for their children to participate in an activity are agreeing to accept any loss that may be incurred.  However, as pointed out earlier, most courts will not allow an adult to sign away their children’s rights.  Indemnification agreements have perhaps the most value when entered into between cooperating organizations.

There are several commonalities associated with liability shields (Ellis, Weisbord & Noyes, 1994; Seidman & Patterson, 1996; Tremper & Kostin, 1993).  These include: (a) the person signing must be mentally competent and of legal adult age; (b) the person signing must be given enough information to understand the nature and scope of the activity to be participated in; (c) the activity must be voluntary with something of value being exchanged; (d) the liability shields do not shift responsibility for criminal activity, willful misconduct or gross negligence; (e) the transfer of risk back to the participant or the participant’s parents must not be against public policy as determined by a court of law; (f) the surrendered legal rights must be clearly identified; and (g) they do not protect the organization from litigation.

Implications for Extension

Using liability shields is an important and essential component in an Extension risk management plan (King & Schmiesing, 1998).  Extension professionals need to consider the following items as they relate to liability shields and programs which involve not only youth, but any volunteer audience.

  1. Extension professionals must continually identify risks in youth and volunteer development activities. Risks must be identified before any type of liability shield may be developed.  Additionally, the Extension professional must recognize that if a risk is not identified and a loss occurs, the responsible adult may sue and claim “If I had known of the risks involved, I wouldn’t have given my permission.” Specific risks can be effectively dealt with when they are identified in advance and addressed in the risk management plan.
  2. Extension professionals conducting youth or volunteer programs should utilize either a permission slip and/or an informed consent form when planning the activity.  Even though Extension does not ask any person to sign away his or her rights, the permission slip or informed consent form are valuable tools that could be used to defend you and Extension during litigation. 
  3. Since most 4-H activities involve participants under legal age, communication with their responsible adults is critical.  Extension professionals may conduct orientation meetings with the 4-H members, their parents, and volunteers.  At the orientation meeting, an itinerary, costs involved, and liability shields for a specific activity should be distributed.  This allows the Extension professional to address details, specific concerns, and the potential risks which have been identified with the planned activity. The orientation meeting also provides an opportunity for staff to describe other forms of reducing and transferring risk which are being utilized.  (They could include volunteer screening, selection, orientation, protection, and education; available insurance; and available medical care.)  This information could also be shared via mail, fax, or e-mail if a parent is unable to attend an orientation meeting.  Remember: communication is a valuable preventive step to avoid litigation by making everyone aware of potential risks. 
  4. Remember the basic rule: One size does not fit all!  Therefore, the most effective liability shields are those which are especially developed for a specific activity.  The value of any form of liability shield is directly related to how closely the form that the responsible adult signs describes the specific activity and the possible risks involved.
  5. It is important to have legal counsel involved in developing and selecting various liability shields.  Shields which are legally correct will protect Extension, the Extension professional, and the adult volunteers involved from loss if there is an accident or claim.  Remember that it is very likely that an attorney in your county will consult (work pro bono) without compensation.  Parents of 4-H members or spouses of 4-H volunteers make likely candidates.

Conclusion

Liability shields are an important component of an Extension risk management plan.  Liability shields which have been properly developed for a specific activity are worth far more than the paper on which they are written.  Liability shields are not a substitute for poor program planning.  Before any activity is undertaken, it should be assessed for potential risks to the participants, volunteers, Extension staff and the Extension organization.

Before the activity takes place, it is important that all staff and volunteers are screening, selected, oriented, educated, and protected in order that they may carry out their responsibilities safely and effectively. Additionally, equipment should be functional, supplemental insurance coverage purchased, and all procedures followed. Finally, both participants and their parents should undergo orientation before participating.

 

Permission to participate