By Erik Smith*
In a recent case filed on January 13, 2023, Konrad Sinu and Linda Szurlej v. Concordia University, a student athlete and his mother sued a private university in Nebraska for negligence. Ultimately, the claim lacked merit due to the student and his mother signing an “Assumption of Risk and Waiver of Liability Release.” The plaintiff then attempted to amend the complaint to gross negligence before the discovery period closed, but the district court denied this motion and granted summary judgment in favor of the university. The plaintiff then filed an appeal to the Supreme Court of Nebraska, claiming that the district court abused its discretion in granting the summary judgment motion. The Supreme Court affirmed the decision made by the district court, finding no abuse in discretion and the university was released from its own negligence.
Concordia University is a private university located in Seward, Nebraska. Concordia University recruited Konrad Sinu, an 18-year-old student, to play on its intercollegiate men’s soccer team. A month prior to moving to Nebraska from England to play for Concordia University, Sinu and his mother signed an “Assumption of Risk and Waiver of Liability Release.” After about five months at the university, Sinu engaged in a mandatory strength and conditioning workout on campus. During the workout, the players performed a “face pull” exercise with a resistance band. Throughout the workout, other players altered the band from the position originally set by a university employee. As a result of this improper modification, the resistance band rested on the squat rack’s “J-hook.” So, when Sinu performed the exercise, the resistance band slid off the hook and caused injury to his eyes. It is unclear the severity of the eye injury and how much money in damages the student and his mother sought to recover from the university.
Ultimately, the waiver that Sinu and his mother signed protected the university. Despite not having the words “negligence” or “fault” in the release, the claims made by the student and his mother that the release did not have clear language lacked merit. In exculpatory clauses, such as contracts, any intentions must be determined in the contents of the contract. As seen in Kuhn v. Wells Fargo Bank of Neb. , a contract must be looked at as a whole to truly be evaluated and determined that no other meaning can be interpreted by either party. That is why they can be enforced: both parties have already worked out any ambiguities prior to signing. In a recreational sports context, a plaintiff’s negligence claim can be barred when a participant signs an exculpatory contract to engage in recreational or nonessential activities . By signing the release, the student and his mother both acknowledged the risks of participating in the nonessential activity and released the university from its own negligence.
The waiver specifically instructed the signees to “please visit with an attorney before signing this document” , which served as an opportunity for them to investigate potential ambiguities or issues with the wording of the contract. Also, the student and his mother had access to the document a month prior to him relocating to Nebraska. The district court determined that a month provided them adequate time to consult with an attorney. Considering the clear language and consequences of signing the document, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of the university because it found additional evidence presented to be futile in trying to overturn the decision. Courts do not want to invalidate contracts because this creates power that should be used rarely since it has great consequences. A court should only invalidate a contract when it is absolutely certain that it goes against public policy or contains unclear language . For Sinu and his mother, they did not encounter one of those doubt-free circumstances.
It is understandable that Sinu and his mother encountered frustration and wanted the university to claim some accountability for the injury resulting from a mandatory workout. Sinu went to Concordia for a life-changing experience and got one—of course not in the way he expected. Let this serve as an important reminder to collegiate athletes: be 100% sure of what you are signing before you make that life-changing move. When an institution gives you a contract that explicitly tells you to consult with an attorney before signing, you probably should take them up on that.
 Kuhn v. Wells Fargo Bank of Neb., 278 Neb. 428, 771 N.W.2d 103 (2009). https://casetext.com/case/kuhn-v-wells-fargo-bank-of-nebraska
 57A Am. Jur. 2d, supra note 6, § 62 at 112.
 Kondrad Sinu and Linda Szurelej v. Concordia University, 313 U.S. 218 (2023). https://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=14625943752059271460&q=recreational+sports+complex&hl=en&as_sdt=40006&as_ylo=2023
 Anderson v. Nashua Corp., 251 Neb. 833, 840, 560 N.W.2d 446, 450 (1997). https://casetext.com/case/anderson-v-nashua-corp
* Erik Smith is a student in the Sport Management Ph.D. program at Florida State University. He is interested in campus recreation research.