Recently, in Vaid v. Equinox Greenwich Old Track Road, Inc. (“Equinox”), a Connecticut jury awarded $10.875 million in damages to plaintiffs Dr. Chetan Vaid and his wife Ms. Screemoee Mukherjee after Dr. Vaid suffered a stroke brought on during a workout not tailored to his fitness level.

Background

Dr. Vaid joined Equinox hoping to get back into shape and his trainer, defendant Joseph Dominguez, took his commitment very seriously.  During a workout on November 10, 2011, while exercising under Dominguez’s supervision, Dr. Vaid complained of dizziness and visual problems.  Despite the complaints, Dominguez insisted repeatedly that Dr. Vaid complete his strenuous training session.  Finally, Dr. Vaid refused and withdrew from the session, eventually seeking emergency medical care.  He was diagnosed with a right internal artery dissection and while at the hospital suffered a serious stroke.

Dr. Vaid and his wife brought suit for, among other things, negligence, negligent supervision, and failure to warn.  They sought economic, compensatory, and punitive damages, attorneys’ fees, and other relief from defendants Equinox Holdings, Inc., Equinox Old Track Road, Inc., and Dominguez.

The court held that Dominguez owed a duty of care to Dr. Vaid.  In other words, Dominguez had a responsibility to ensure the health and safety of his trainee.  It also found that it was foreseeable that Dr. Vaid could be injured, and was in fact injured, as a result of Dominguez’s failure to properly anticipate the health risks associated with the training session.  Specifically, the court found that Dominguez failed in his duty of care for Dr. Vaid when he “designed a training program in which he knowingly placed uncomfortable stress upon the plaintiff, failed to adequately instruct him on proper and safe work out techniques, insisted he continue his exercises despite experiencing blurry vision and dizziness, failed to monitor his health and vitalities during the workout despite complaints of his symptoms, and failed to advise him to seek immediate emergency medical assistance after experiencing those symptoms."

Because Dominquez failed Dr. Vaid so thoroughly, the jury found the defendants’ 75 percent negligent for plaintiffs’ injuries and awarded $10.875 million to the plaintiffs for past and future harms.

What does Equinox mean for fitness club owners and operators?

What this Equinox case essentially highlights for fitness clubs is that fitness clubs and their trainers have a responsibility to care for patrons against reasonably foreseeable dangers, such as adverse health effects, when designing, implementing, and marketing your training products.  Additionally, it underscores the importance of protecting a business from the negligent acts of its employees.  

Club fitness facilities and personal trainers should consider the following measures to limit its exposure to negligence-based liability:

  1. Enforceable Waivers.  Some injuries are a natural consequence of working out.  Others may arise out of something a club facility or its employees failed to do, such as Dominquez’s failure to correctly monitor Dr. Vaid in the Equinox case.  A big step towards avoiding or limiting liability is to carefully draft waivers that release your business from negligence-based liability.  While some courts (for example, Wisconsin courts) will not enforce a waiver that does not allow the parties sufficient opportunity to negotiate, others state courts view waivers more favorably.  For instance, in Hussein v. L.A. Fitness Int'l, LLC, 2013 IL App (1st) 121426, ¶ 13, 987 N.E.2d 460, 465, the Illinois Court of Appeals held that a patron’s freedom to contract as he or she saw fit was not to be interfered with and a waiver releasing a gym from all liability for ordinary negligence was valid.  Drafting a waiver that will withstand the scrutiny of court review and that also fits the needs and risks of your business is critically important and incredibly technical.  As such, it is essential that owners seek the advice of an attorney before they just grab a waiver they found online.
  2. Injury Prevention Programs.  Implementing an effective injury prevention program starts at the top, so management participation is crucial to the program’s success.  The program should include measures that ensure proper training of staff, a periodic fitness assessment for all members, and a process for gathering and maintaining the program’s data.  Additionally, including exercise programs available to all members or hiring an instructor or trainer who sole responsibility is to ensure the vitality of the program will boost success and limit injury.
  3. Insurance, Insurance, Insurance.  One may be surprised that an otherwise healthy, young doctor could suffer such severe injuries from an intense workout, but as we saw in theEquinox case, everyone runs some risk of injury during a particularly strenuous workout.  With more than 1.5 million people receiving some type of emergency room care for injuries related to athletic activities, gyms and fitness centers must seriously consider their options when it comes to insurance coverage.  Many insurance providers have developed specialty coverage for gyms and fitness clubs and specific coverage will depend on factors like the services your facility offers, its size, and the number of people you employ.  Generally, smaller clubs should consider policies with coverage extending to general liability, property damage and loss, and loss of business income.  Larger clubs should consider policies that also cover professional liability, product liability, employees practices liability, equipment damage or loss, and workers compensation.

Summary

The Equinox case highlights the duties and responsibilities of fitness club owners and personal trainers in their interactions with members.  Fitness clubs should put measures in place to protect themselves from situations that can be avoided.