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Weekend Perspectives: Releases redux

The city (despite wise counsel) still insists on shirking basic responsibility

Saturday, March 27, 1999

By Jay N. Silberblatt

Nearly two years ago, I wrote what I thought was a hard-hitting Perspectives piece about releases and responsibility ("The 'Release' Escape Clause," Aug. 1, 1997). In order for my daughter to attend the city of Pittsburgh's Nature Camp, we were required to sign a form releasing the city from any liability whatsoever. I was outraged. I criticized the Department of Parks and Recreation for attempting to avoid responsibility for the safety of my daughter and other campers.

  Jay N. Silberblatt is a civil trial lawyer with the Pittsburgh law firm of Sikov and Love. He lives in Forest Hills. 

Guided by my lawyerly ego, I figured that my commentary would result in wholesale changes in the department. Boy, was I naive.

Once again, the subject of releases and the city's Department of Parks and Recreation has crossed my path. This time, the issue involves my synagogue and the efforts of its Social Action Committee to do a good deed.

The mission of my congregation's Social Action Committee is tikkun olam - Hebrew for "repair the world." To fulfill this mission, members of the committee perform good deeds for others in need of help, both within our congregation and in the community at large. The committee has several ongoing programs designed along this theme - visiting the sick and infirm, organizing food drives for the hungry, gathering clothing for the needy, collecting holiday presents for less fortunate families, helping the elderly with household chores, and several others.

One program sponsored by the Social Action Committee involves spending time to help clean up Schenley Park. Volunteers from the committee will pick up garbage, landscape, beautify and weed this vast urban park in an effort to improve its appearance and help repair that part of the world.

A lot of organizing has gone into the effort. Phone calls to members. Scheduling. Mobilizing a sufficient number of volunteers to really make a difference. Transportation. Tools. Instructions on what to pick (garbage and weeds) and what to leave behind (signs and flowering plants). In addition, members of the committee and the synagogue's administrator have been coordinating with the city Department of Parks and Recreation to ensure adequate supervision and instructions.

In preparation for the event, the city sent a package of documents to the synagogue. The documents were forwarded to me by the synagogue's administrator. In my dual capacity as a vice president of the synagogue and as a lawyer, I am often called upon to review such documents

The package contained the usual stuff - forms to fill out listing the identity of the volunteers, the area of the park to be cleaned up, contacts at the synagogue, important phone numbers and information about the synagogue's insurance policy. No problem there.

After sifting through all the checklists and forms, I finally saw it. Yes, it was another release. It was like deja vu.

Again, this was not just any old release. This release, although short and sweet, was direct and to the point. This release provided that members of the synagogue's Social Action Committee would have to first release the city of Pittsburgh before they would be afforded the "privilege" of cleaning up Schenley Park.

Once signed, the document specified that the city would be released in advance for any conduct of its employees, "negligent or otherwise," that might, in any other event, create some legal liability. Once signed, the city would no longer be responsible for its conduct or the conduct of its employees.

In other words, if while cleaning up Schenley Park, a volunteer member of the synagogue might be run over by a negligently operated city of Pittsburgh vehicle - tough. If while bending over to pick up some garbage, a volunteer member of the synagogue might accidentally be whacked in the back of the head by a shovel toting city of Pittsburgh groundskeeper - tough. If while trying to repair some small part of the world, a volunteer member of the synagogue might suffer some negligently (or otherwise) inflicted injury caused in some way by the city's carelessness - tough.

Once again, the city of Pittsburgh refuses to accept any responsibility. Obviously, the city is so concerned about its inability to avoid negligently causing harm to those who might use its parks, it must require even volunteer helpers to release it from any responsibility before using their manpower to improve the parks' appearance.

Surely, it won't be long before the city requires every visitor to its parks to sign such releases in advance. Imagine. Want to have a picnic? Sign this release first. Want to play tennis? Sign this release first. Want to walk on the trails? Sign this release first.

And don't think that such releases are ineffective. Our courts have long held that these kinds of releases can actually be construed "to relieve a person or entity of liability for that party's own or its servants' or agents' acts of negligence" as long as they "spell out the intention of the parties with the greatest of particularity . . . and show the intent to release from liability beyond doubt by express stipulation" (Princeton Sportswear Corp. vs. H&M Associates, 510 Pa. 189, 507 a. 2d 339, 1986).

So what is it with all these releases? Whose brilliant idea was it to force a bunch of volunteers to give up their legal rights before donating their time and energy for the city's benefit, for the benefit of all who might want to enjoy Schenley Park?

I mean, why can't the city of Pittsburgh just accept some responsibility if its conduct causes harm to someone else? Why does the city demand to be released in advance from any liability? Is there any other business or individual that requires such a release before providing a routine service? And in this case, the city isn't even providing a service; the city is receiving a service - a free service - from volunteers who just want to help make Schenley Park a more attractive and desirable piece of the Earth.

So what advice did I give to my synagogue's administrator? I faxed her a copy of my last commentary and I told her that I did not like the release.

Regardless of my advice, the Social Action Committee's project will proceed as planned. The lofty goal of repairing the world is far too important to be frustrated by the city's lowly effort to shirk responsibility.

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