Legal Translation of Liability Release Forms
Should you have your business’s liability release form translated into the languages of your non-English speaking customers? Absolutely. In this article, we discuss a recent case in which there were serious consequences for a business that failed to translate a release form for one of its non-English speaking customers. Your business, however, does not need to suffer the same fate. Experienced, professional legal translation services are just a phone call away.
Whether your business is a recreation center, a charity bike-ride event, or a stable offering horse rides to the public, it is likely that you use some form of liability release form. A liability release form (also known as a waiver or “hold harmless” agreement) is a way in which to minimize your business’s exposure to lawsuits if a customer injures himself on the business premises or as a result of using your business’s services.
Some say that the liability release form is ironclad protection from exposure to lawsuits. Others say that it is not worth the paper it is written on. The truth, like most things, lies somewhere in the middle, depending on the relevant state law and language used in the release. Suffice it to say, it is always a good business practice to use a liability release form if there is a good chance that customers can be injured using your facilities or services.
A major problem arises, however, when customers cannot understand the liability release because they do not speak English. In fact, a recent case involving a fitness center dealt with that very issue.
A Cautionary Tale: Jimenez v. 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc.
Etelvina Jimenez wanted to stay in shape, so she joined her local 24 Hour Fitness gym in California. Spanish being her primary language, Etelvina did not speak or read English at all. At the time she signed up for the gym, the Membership Manager assisting her did not try to find a Spanish interpreter. Rather, he simply made pumping motions with his arms as if he was exercising and pointed to his computer screen, which showed the price of a monthly membership. Etelvina then signed the Membership Agreement where the Membership Manager told her to sign.
The Membership Agreement contained a liability release unbeknownst to Etelvina. Based on the non-verbal conversation with the Membership Manager, all Etelvina understood was that the Agreement indicated she could use the gym for a monthly fee. The Membership Manager did not point out the liability release to Etelvina or discuss the full scope of the Agreement.
Two years after joining the gym, Etelvina was severely injured when using a treadmill. Specifically, she fell back into another piece of equipment that was close the treadmill. She sued the gym for her extensive injuries.
After both sides fully briefed the case, the trial court dismissed Etelvina’s lawsuit. The trial court determined that the liability release that Etelvina signed was valid and barred her claims. The court reasoned that 24 Hour Fitness could not be blamed if Etelvina signed an agreement that she did not fully understand. Etelvina then took her case to the California Court of Appeal.
On appeal, the California Court of Appeal took a much different view of the case. As an initial matter, the Court found that the gym may have committed gross negligence by putting equipment so close behind the treadmill. More importantly, the Court of Appeal took issue with the fact that the Membership Manager did not provide a Spanish legal translator so Etelvina could understand the liability release in the Agreement. The Court noted that, in general, an agreement remains valid even if the signatory claims that he or she failed to read it. However, an agreement is invalid if a person’s signature was procured by misrepresentation, overreaching, deception or fraud.
On that point, the Court of Appeals reasoned that fraud or deception was possible in this case. It found that a reasonable juror could conclude that the Membership Manager’s non-verbal exercise motions and pointing to the screen indicated to Etelvina only that the Membership Agreement covered exercising at the gym for a monthly fee, and nothing more. Having not made Etelvina aware of the liability release in the Agreement, the Membership Manager deceived Etelvina into unknowingly signing away her right to sue the gym.
Accordingly, the Court of Appeals sent the case back down to the trial court so Etelvina’s claims could be tried before a jury – a big victory for Etelvina.
How to Avoid a Fate Similar to 24 Hour Fitness?
Etelvina’s case serves as a cautionary tale to all businesses. If a business uses a liability release as standard practice, the business needs to make sure that all customers, including non-English speakers, understand its general terms. Does that mean having a legal interpreter on staff at all times? Absolutely not. It only means making sure that you have a reliable, responsive, professional translation service available when needed. In that vein, the next time you need translation help for legal documents such as liability releases, contact our legal translation service. We provide interpreters in the breadth of languages, from Spanish and French to Bulgarian and Romanian, to handle virtually any situation.