On September 22, 2005, the plaintiff signed an agreement to join defendant LA Fitness. Allen v. LA Fitness International, LLC, No. A-5791-09 (App. Div. June 15, 2011). When the plaintiff went to the gym for the first time, she signed a contract for personal training that ran for eighteen months. The contract included an acknowledgement and assumption of risk, as well as a release from liability and waiver of claims relating to the activities she would be undertaking at the gym. Some time thereafter, the plaintiff filed a negligence complaint against LA Fitness, alleging that she sustained a shoulder injury as a result of performing an “unsafe exercise” at the direction of a trainer whom she claimed had not assessed her condition and needs. At trial, LA Fitness moved for a directed verdict based on the plaintiff’s agreement to assume the risk of her activities and the release and waiver. The trial court denied that motion, and the jury returned a verdict awarding the plaintiff $525,000. The trial court also denied LA Fitness’ post-trial motions.
The Supreme Court decided Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, 203 N.J. 286 (2010), two days after LA Fitness filed its notice of appeal. In Stelluti, the Court held that “agreements between a gym and its patron limiting liability for ‘injuries sustained as a matter of negligence that result from a patron’s voluntary use of equipment and participation in instructed activity’ are enforceable.” The Appellate Division held that Stelluti controlled and that it required reversal of the judgment and the dismissal of the plaintiff’s complaint. In that regard, the Appellate Division observed that there was no “material difference” between the assumption of risk and release provisions the plaintiff signed and those involved in Stelluti.
However, the plaintiff argued that her case was distinguishable from Stelluti because it involved a contract with a personal trainer. The court rejected that attempt at a distinction, as it pointed out that “Stelluti is stated broadly to include ‘participation in instructed activity.’” In addition, although the Appellate Division agreed with the plaintiff that certain phrases in her contract could be interpreted to exculpate the defendant for gross negligence and reckless conduct – in contravention of Stelluti – the court disagreed with her contention that such language rendered the permissible portion of her waiver invalid, especially because the plaintiff’s claims did not involve either gross negligence or reckless conduct.
Finally, the Appellate Division rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the defendant waived its right to enforce the assumption of risk and release provisions of the contract because it proceeded with discovery and did not file a summary judgment motion. The court pointed out that the defendant’s answer included assumption of risk as a defense and that the defendant advised the court and the plaintiff prior to trial that it would file a motion based on that defense at the close of the case. Accordingly, the Appellate Division found that the plaintiff’s argument that the assumption of risk defense was inadequately pled or waived lacked merit.