Court of Appeals Reverses Finding for Stetson, Concludes Release Signed by Deceased Football Player Was Not ‘Clear and Unambiguous’

Feb 24, 2023

By Elizabeth Bulat

A Stetson University football student-athlete, Nicholas Blakely, collapsed at a football practice on August 28, 2017, which resulted in his cardiac death. His family subsequently sued Stetson.

Initially, the trial court granted summary judgment for Stetson University upon discovering two identical releases that Blakely had signed before his athletic participation at the school. In addition, the trial court also granted the family’s motion for leave to amend the complaint for punitive damages. However, the family appealed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment.

On appeal, the family raised two arguments. First, that “[t]he language in the releases was insufficient to be enforceableas a matter of law… [and second,] that genuine issues of material fact exist concerning the scope of the release and whether Stetson’s alleged tortious conduct fell within that scope.”

These arguments were considered by the Court of Appeals of Florida on December 20, 2022. After further review, the Court of Appeals determined that, “the trial court erred in granting summary judgment for the [U]niversity because the exculpatory clause was not clear and unambiguous.” The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded to the trial court.

By way of background, before the fateful practice in 2017 Blakely communicated to his football team’s head athletic trainer that he had symptoms such as a bad cough, chest congestion, and shallow breathing, which the trainer determined to be from a cold. Although Blakely had experienced unexplained, fleeting chest pain for years, he was instructed to participate in practice per usual despite his stated ailment. During practice, Blakely pulled himself out of the workout due to his chest feeling tight. The football team’s assistant athletic trainer, “took Blakely to the sideline, took his pulse,gave him water to cool down, removed his helmet, loosened his shoulder pads, and had him stand in the shade.” Trainers observed Blakely’s symptoms while he rested on the sidelines, but 45 minutes later, he collapsed and died after being unresponsive to emergency procedures or hospital treatments.

When considering the uninvestigated chest pain before Blakely’s untimely death and the responses of the football team’s athletic training staff on August 28, 2017, “the operative amended complaint included counts for negligence and breach of fiduciary duty.” The family also claimed in their amended complaint that the releases signed by Blakely “did not mention negligence and contained contradictory and ambiguous provisions rendering the releases unenforceable.”

The trial court had previously determined that the releases Blakely signed were clear and understandable. On the other hand, the Court of Appeals found three factors within the case to deem the releases that Blakely signed to be unclear and ambiguous. The first was that it, “failed to expressly inform Blakely that he was contracting away his right to sue Stetson for Stetson’s negligence.” The Court of Appeals considered prior precedent in UCF Athletics Ass’n, v. Plancher, 121 So. 3d 1097, 1101 (Fla. 5th DCA 2013), which defined enforceability of an exculpatory clause as “an injured party [with] the right to recover damages from a person negligently causing his injury” and “such clauses are strictly construed against the party seeking to be relieved of liability.” Moreover, “exculpatory clauses are enforceable only where and to the extent that the intention to be relieved from liability is made clear and unequivocal. The wording must be so clear and understandable that an ordinary and knowledgeable person will knowwhat he is contracting away.”

In Blakely’s case, since the release focused on the regulatory and safety risks involved with playing football rather than the University’s negligence, it does not prevent Stetson from suing. However, due to the ruling in Sanislo v. Give Kids the World, Inc., 157 So. 3d 256 (Fla. 2015), this finding alone does not merit the exculpatory unenforceable. Listed before the exculpatory clause in both releases signed by Blakely, “[he] was advised that it was important that he comply with Stetson’s medical staff’s instructions regarding, inter alia, conditioning and treatment and, indeed, was required to obey such instructions.” Blakely had communicated his symptoms to the medical staff at Stetson and had been obedient to their instructions, therefore, he was compliant with this section of the release.

Once again, however, the ruling in UCF Athletics Ass’n, v. Plancher, 121 So. 3d 1097, 1101 (Fla. 5th DCA 2013) proves that since the release “does not expressly state that the athlete would be waiving a negligence action, [this] could reasonably lead the athlete to believe that the university would be supervising his training and instructing him properly (non-negligently), and that he was only being asked to sign the exculpatory clause to cover injuries inherent in the sport.” Blakely’s communication and compliance with Stetson’s medical staff coupled with his cardiac death’s indirect relationship with the football practice’s inherent activity make this, in part, a contradicting release. Not to say that Blakely would have certainly survived his cardiac episode had the trainers reacted differently, but the wording of the releases that he signed “render the exculpatory provision unclear and ambiguous.”

Paired with the prior problematic provisions, the wording of the releases’ concluding sentences provides a third factor to deem the contract unenforceable, according to the Court of Appeals. Specifically, the language used in these sentences includes the phrase “for myself” rather than “by myself” which implies that the release is in place for the benefit of Blakely. Further, the Court of Appeals found that the release also suggested that, “if [Blakely] follows the instructions of Stetson’s athletic department personnel and causes injury to another while participating in the dangerous activity of playing football, he is released from liability.”

Considering that the releases inexplicitly communicated that Blakely was waiving his right to sue Stetson for the University’s negligence, included wording that implied that Blakely would be appropriately supervised and trained by Stetson’s football staff, and suggested that the releases were in place for Blakely’s benefit, the Court of Appeals determined that, “the exculpatory clause was not clear and unambiguous…[and] conclude[d] that the exculpatory clause relied upon by Stetson is unenforceable.” Therefore, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment in favor of Stetson.

“On cross-appeal, Stetson argue[d] that if this Court reverses the final judgment, it should also reverse the trial court’s order allowing Wilson to add a claim for punitive damages.” Although The Court of Appeals found some merit to the family’s claim for punitive damages, “taking the record evidence and proffered evidence in the light most favorable to Wilson, we conclude that Wilson has not met the threshold necessary to state a claim for punitive damages.” This decision was determined by considering the standard set by The Florida Supreme Court. As a result, the Court of Appeals concluded that “the trial court erred in granting Wilson’s motion to amend complaint to add a claim for punitive damages.”

Articles in Current Issue