If you operate a health club, it pays to make sure your membership agreements are in good shape.
Gym chain LA Fitness was sued by member Patricia Evans in 2015 over injuries sustained from a fall during a training session. On September 28, 2016, a Pennsylvania federal court granted summary judgment to Fitness & Sports Clubs, LLC (doing business as LA Fitness), finding that the gym is protected by waivers of liability in the membership and personal training agreements that Evans signed. (Evans v. Fitness & Sports Clubs, LLC, No. 15-4095 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 28, 2016)).
Evans, who was 61 at the time of the fall, alleged that she fell and fractured both her wrists during a personal training session at a Pennsylvania LA Fitness location. She alleged that her personal trainer urged her to go faster while performing "suicide runs," which required her to repeatedly run forward, bend down to touch a weight then run back to the start line.
LA Fitness argued that two exculpatory clauses in each of the membership and personal training agreements signed by Evans shield LA Fitness and its trainer from liability. The membership agreement, which an LA Fitness employee "perused through" with her, included a release and waiver of liability and indemnity, an exculpatory clause, and an arbitration clause. As the evidence showed, Evans signed the first page of the Membership Agreement, initialed in two places on the second page, and initialed the bottom of the third page. Directly above the signature line on the first page of the Membership Agreement, the following language appears in a text box:
"By signing this Agreement, Buyer acknowledges that Buyer is of legal age, has received a filled-in and completed copy of this Agreement has read and understands the entire agreement including but not limited to (1) the RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND INDEMNITY…"
On the second page of the Membership Agreement, a text box near the top of the page contained an exculpatory clause and an arbitration clause printed in larger font than the rest of the text on the page that began: "IMPORTANT: RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND INDEMNITY."
Months after signing the initial Membership Agreement, Evans also signed the Personal Training Agreement, which included similar language concerning assumption of risk, limitations of liability, and an arbitration clause.
Refusing to be boxed in, Evans contended that she did not knowingly waive liability and that the clauses were not conspicuously displayed on the agreements. However, before Evans signed the membership and personal training agreements, an LA Fitness employee discussed the agreements with Evans. Moreover, each agreement included an acknowledgment that Evans had read and understood the entire agreement, placed directly above Evan's signature.
LA Fitness moved for summary judgment on the basis that the exculpatory clauses in the membership and personal training agreements were enforceable and not against public policy and therefore barred the suit. U.S. District Judge Anita B. Brody evaluated the validity of the exculpatory clauses based on the following standard: whether (1) the clause contravenes public policy; (2) the contract relates entirely to the private affairs of the parties; and (3) the contract is one of adhesion. A valid exculpatory clause is enforceable "only if the parties' language makes it clear that a person is being relieved of liability for his own negligence."
Judge Brody found that the clauses were strong enough to meet all three elements of the validity standard and were enforceable, noting that the agreements in question "are not contracts of adhesion because they are contracts to participate in voluntary recreational activities" and that Evans "was under no compulsion to exercise at a gym and to participate in personal training sessions." Moreover, in ruling that LA Fitness established its immunity from the negligence suit, the court noted the agreements related solely to private affairs and do not contravene public policy because they do not affect a matter of interest to the state. (Interestingly, had New York law governed the membership agreements, a court may well have ruled that the exculpatory clause was against public policy based upon N.Y. Gen. Oblig. §5-326, which deems such limitation of liability provisions within certain gym user agreements to be void and unenforceable.)
A recent personal injury lawsuit involving CrossFit, Inc., a fitness brand that has popularized intense workout regiments, serves as cautionary tale for gyms operating without liability waiver procedures in place. Plaintiff Jonas Barrish injured his back while deadlifting 350 pounds at Sky's Limit CrossFit gym in Kansas City and sued CrossFit and the CrossFit affiliate Sky's Limit on a theory of negligence. Neither CrossFit nor Sky's Limit could produce a waiver form signed by Barrish, and a jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff, with both defendants ordered to pay $100,000 each in damages (plaintiff was deemed to be 50% at fault). Notably, while CrossFit announced its intent to appeal the verdict, the case reportedly represented the first instance that CrossFit has been assigned fault in a lawsuit – certainly, an unwanted personal best.