Today’s fitness clubs, exercise studios, Pilates classes, and yoga centers are our modern day gymnasiums. Dedicated to molding bodies into shape, they’re a refuge from the stress of our daily lives. But they can also be minefields, filled with dead weights, one-ton workout machines, pulleys, steel wires, wet floors, and bacteria-filled mats.
Thousands of people are hurt each year in gyms and exercise classes all across the country. Many injuries result from negligent management and poorly maintained equipment. It seems logical then that gym members would have the right to file insurance claims for injuries due to slip and falls, broken weight machines, or other dangerous conditions. Unfortunately, that’s not often the case.
To stem the tide of rising insurance claims and lawsuits, most gym owners now require prospective members to sign contracts containing waivers of liability (meaning you can’t hold them accountable). These waivers are legal contracts effectively prohibiting members and their guests from filing any legal action against the gym ownership or management.
A typical waiver of liability contains the following legal language:
In consideration of my use of the exercise equipment and facilities provided by the company, I expressly agree and contract, on behalf of myself, my heirs, executors, administrators, successors and assigns, that the company and its insurers, employees, officers, directors, and associates, shall not be liable for any damages arising from personal injuries (including death) sustained by me, or my guest in, on, or about the premises, or as a result of the use of the equipment or facilities, regardless of whether such injuries result, in whole or in part, from the negligence of the company and its employees, agents, servants and associates….”
These waivers contain additional language that makes them all but ironclad. To have access to exercise equipment, lockers, showers, etc., prospective members must complete and sign several forms. The owners often hide the waiver of liability in between locker assignment forms, key deposit agreements, and rights and responsibilities cautions.
It’s rare for a fitness club employee to bring a prospective member’s attention to the binding effect of the waiver they’re about to sign. It’s even rarer for an employee to understand the terms of the waiver. Attorneys, expert at camouflaging liability issues, write the waivers.
Before you decide to join your local gym, read the waiver of liability. Ask for a copy to take home and study. You may have a friend who is an attorney. See if she’ll review it with you. The problem is if you don’t sign the waiver, you can’t join the gym. Rarely, if ever, do gyms permit their employees to negotiate liability waivers. They can negotiate prices, but that’s about it.
Gym Insurance Companies
Insurance companies love waivers of liability. They give them the power to just say no to injury claims. Moreover, getting the name of the gym’s insurance company can be tough. In most cases, gyms have no legal obligation to give you their insurance information. Once you sign the membership contract and waiver of liability, you’re pretty much on your own.
Many fitness club employees are impermanent, moving often from one job to another. They’re the last people to depend on if you’re hurt on the gym’s premises. Even long-time employees are helpless when it comes to assisting you with an injury claim. Even if they know gym’s insurance company’s name, you can bet the owner won’t let them tell you.
So what happens if you’re injured due to the gym’s negligence? Where do you turn to seek compensation for things like your medical bills, medications, lost wages, and pain and suffering? How do you secure a gym insurance settlement?
Your Chances in Court
If your damages amount to less than your state’s small claim court limits, you can file a lawsuit there. Unfortunately, the gym’s attorney will file a motion for summary judgment (it asks the judge to rule for them immediately). The attorney’s motion will attach the waiver of liability you signed.
Unless the judge has no clue about the law, he or she will dismiss your case before it even gets to trial. Even if you can find an attorney to file a lawsuit in a higher court, there’s a good chance the gym’s attorney will quickly file a motion for summary judgment and ask for your case to be dismissed.
In some cases, when the gym’s negligence is clear, there’s a chance the gym’s insurance company may pay for your medical bills only. This is a long-shot, but worth a try. The amount will probably be no more than $1,000. Even then, the insurance company will require you to sign a full release of liability and indemnification against any lawsuit you might later think about filing.
Exceptions to the Waiver
There are circumstances when you may be able to get around the waiver of liability…
1) Vague and ambiguous language
In rare cases, judges can find the language in a waiver of liability to be vague and ambiguous. When a judge says this, it paves the way for the member’s insurance lawsuit. When the court sets aside (rejects) a waiver, the probability of an injury settlement greatly increases.
“Vague and ambiguous” means the language in the waiver is so confusing that a prudent (careful) prospective member could not understand its terms. This is a rare, since attorneys for gyms, fitness clubs, exercise centers, yoga and Pilates studios, etc. copy standard language from well-structured waivers that have stood the test of time, passing court muster repeatedly.
2) Gross Negligence
The second exception is gross negligence. One legal dictionary defines gross negligence as:
Carelessness in reckless disregard for the safety or lives of others, which is so great it appears to be a conscious violation of other people’s rights to safety. It is more than simple inadvertence, but it is just shy of being intentionally evil….”
If you signed a waiver of liability but believe the gross negligence of the gym or its employees caused your injury, you can maybe pierce the gym’s waiver of liability and succeed with a claim or lawsuit. To do so requires compelling evidence of the gym’s gross negligence.
To illustrate the type of gross negligence required to pierce a gym’s veil of protection, look at some examples of court cases where the injured party successfully proved gross negligence.
Example 1: AED – Automatic External Defibrillator
The estate of a 68-year-old man who suffered a heart attack and died at a local gym filed a lawsuit against the gym for wrongful death, alleging gross negligence. The gym’s attorneys sought to have the case dismissed on summary judgment, relying on the waiver of liability signed by the deceased. The negligence lawsuit’s basis was the gym’s failure to have an automatic external defibrillator (AED) on the premises.
The deceased’s family members maintained it was grossly negligent for a gym that sells memberships to men and women of all ages not to have an AED onsite. The court agreed and found the waiver didn’t protect the gym from what the court referred to as its “reckless and grossly negligent behavior.” The court awarded the man’s estate $250,000.
Example 2: Faulty weight bar left unrepaired
A 24-year-old woman was a member of a local gym. Before becoming a member, she signed the gym’s standard waiver of liability. While at the gym, she began using the free weights. One of the gym employees was spotting the woman to make sure she could lift the weight and safely place it down after each repetition.
Suddenly, during the third repetition, one of the 20-pound weights fell off the end of the bar and fell on the woman’s right foot, fracturing several bones. The injured woman writhed in pain until the paramedics arrived 15 minutes later. Someone later learned the end cap that’s supposed to stop the weights from falling off the bar broke more than a week ago.
After filing a lawsuit alleging gross negligence, the woman’s attorney subpoenaed the gym’s records. He found that more than six people previously notified the gym’s employees and manager about the faulty end cap. In spite of the warnings, the gym’s manager failed to remove the broken end cap and replace it with a functioning one.
The court decided in the woman’s favor and awarded her $27,000, which covered her medical bills, out-of-pocket expenses, lost wages, and pain and suffering. In its decision, the court said “…the gym’s blatant disregard for the safety of its members constituted a reckless and grossly negligent behavior.” Consequently, the waiver of liability had no effect.
Example 3: Broken soda can
A 35-year-old man was working out at a local gym. He had signed a standard waiver of liability contract. One day, while walking barefoot in the locker room, he stepped on a broken soda can, severing multiple tendons in his left foot. Citing the waiver of liability, the gym’s insurance company denied his gym insurance claim. After several surgeries to repair the tendons, the man’s medical bills alone amounted to more than $60,000.
The injured man hired an attorney and filed suit alleging the gym was grossly negligent. After making it through the gym’s motion for summary judgment, the case went to trial. Evidence from gym employees revealed that in an effort to cut costs, management laid off several employees.
One of the laid-off employees was a janitor, whose job duties included making regular tours of the gym to empty trashcans and keep the floor free from debris. Further evidence revealed management knew since they laid off the janitor, the trashcans in the locker room and elsewhere in the gym frequently overflowed with trash, including soda cans.
Management had laid off the janitor six weeks before. In the interim, several gym members complained to management about overfilled trashcans and spilled debris on the floor in the locker room. A member apparently crushed the soda can before he threw it into the trash. When he crushed the can, part of it broke open exposing a sharp edge.
The court decided in the injured member’s favor. In its decision, the court said gym management knew members walked barefoot in locker rooms and knew aluminum cans left on the locker room floor created a dangerous condition. The gym’s failure to remove the dangerous condition was gross negligence. The court awarded the injured man $125,000.
What if you’re injured and believe the gym was grossly negligent?
If you’re hurt while at the gym, seek medical care immediately. Not only is doing that good for your health, but also if there’s any chance of succeeding with an insurance claim or lawsuit, you must link the grossly negligent act directly to your injury and resulting medical bills.
If your injuries are serious, alert the closest employee or manager of the gym. Ask them to call 911. If your injuries aren’t serious, it’s still vital you report your injury and its cause to management.
Management is normally required to fill out an incident report when members or their guests are injured. Ask for a copy. If the manager gives you one, great. If not, there’s not a whole lot you can do about it. Make sure you bring the cause of your injury to the manager’s attention.
Use your cell phone to photograph and video the cause and scene of your injury. If there were any witnesses, ask them to give you their contact information. If there’s time, ask them to write down what they saw. Don’t worry about notaries or sworn affidavits. Their handwritten statements are sufficient.
If you signed a waiver of liability but believe the gym’s gross negligence caused your injury, visit with an experienced personal injury attorney. Most don’t charge for an initial office visit. If your attorney agrees with you, maybe she can have the waiver of liability set aside. Doing so may pave the way to a fair insurance settlement.
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Visitor Questions on Business Liability for Injuries
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I am a 65 year-old man, not in the best shape, and as part of my pledge to get in shape, I hired a personal trainer at 24 hour fitness health club. As part of this training I signed a waiver from the health club. On the 3rd session I was given an exercise using... Read More.
I recently went into a local health club to inquire about a 2 week free trial membership. One of the personal trainers gave me a tour of the facility. She briefly demonstrated one of the machines that involved using pulleys. When I tried it, I couldn’t figure out how to properly use it and told... Read More.
On 1/6/2016 I went to the gym around 9:30. I worked out obliques and then walked over to use the stair master. As soon as I stepped up on the steps the stairs started to tumble down fast, so I stepped up so I wouldn’t fall. I was trying to step off the stairs but... Read More.
I have a question regarding the liability of a group fitness instructor and her level of liability when a student is injured… A man, very out of shape and upon the advice of his doctor, joined a gym and decided to take an aerobics class. Having never taken this class before he ended up getting... Read More.
I paid in full for yoga classes. My third class, I could not enter the studio because the owner locked the door (because there was another class in session). Therefore another student and I stood outside in the rain for approx 5 minutes. When she unlocked the door, we entered the studio and I placed... Read More.
On January 29th, 2013 in at women’s locker room at a private gym I encountered a safety hazard due to management negligence. A stool which I sat down on had no screws to attach the seat and the legs fell apart. I fell on the floor, and the heavy seat flew away and hit directly... Read More.
Earlier this week, I went to the gym at 8am. Upon entering the aerobics room (a large room with wooden floors that members sometimes use for stretching, and other things when there’s no class in session), I slipped on the floor and went flying up in the air, landing on my leg the wrong way,... Read More.
My injury occurred May 24, 2014 at branch of a national fitness center chain on Miramar Rd in San Diego. I was using machine. When I pulled on a cable, the pin, which is spring loaded to lock, broke and it dropped from the 3 position all the way down, striking me in the head.... Read More.
I was working out in the gym of my condo complex when the straps that holds the weights snapped, causing me to fall and get a severe injury, including a dislocated neck disc as well as spinal disc. There is a video that shows the accident. The thing is, my condo complex manager says that... Read More.
Last week, I was working out at my gym on a machine. As I was resting between sets, an employee walked by and accidentally hit my knee with a kettle bell. He apologized (“Hey sorry, man”) as he continued on his way. My knee was sore and swollen (and I should mention that in the... Read More.
I dropped a 45 lb weight on my foot at the gym resulting in a shattered compound fracture to my big toe. I notified the gym staff of this incident and they told me that because I caused the injury to myself that they are not liable. Is this true or do they have a... Read More.
I had a slip and fall incident at my gym. They guaranteed they would pay all medical claims and for that reason I did not sue. After 3 1/2 years I am still getting hospital bills. I have followed up with the gym’s insurance company several times, who stated they would take care of this.... Read More.
I was taking a Taekwondo class and doing simple jumping side kicks. I did not know that the owner and instructor did not properly install martial art pads. I did my kick and when I landed on my left foot the pads pulled apart and my heal hit the concrete substrate floor. I sustained a... Read More.
I joined a gym 3 months ago and they offered all kinds of classes including yoga. They have 3 or 4 yoga instructors. A month ago I took a yoga class and it was really intense yoga.. She didn’t give any instructions to do the postures in an easy way. After I came home I... Read More.
I was using a machine at a national chain gym when the equipment failed and I ended up with a bruised chest wall. The manager noted in the incident report that it was not my fault and the equipment was not functioning properly. It was quite painful, I had to go to a medical clinic... Read More.
On a snowy Illinois morning, my girlfriend went to our local gym. Once inside, she walked down the steps to the gym floor. Unfortunately, as she was walking down the steps, she slipped on a puddle and fell down a few steps. Through the fall, she hit her head. Once she collected herself, she went... Read More.
My son was taking a hot yoga class with weights. During the class he went into cardiac arrest. The instructor immediately attended to him. He has an ICD device that did fire and started to bring his heart back to a normal rhythm. The instructor called 911 (she herself is EMT trained), and continued to... Read More.
My 8 year old daughter was playing a game in her school’s gym in her physical education class. She was on a scooter on her stomach when she fell face first and broke her top two front teeth. I was told by staff it was just a chip but when I got there and saw... Read More.
I was taking a fitness class using a step-up and while stepping I’m not sure if I lost my balance or what happened, but I fell and injured my ankle. I was in front of the class so I’m sure the instructor saw me down, since there are mirrors throughout the wall. She did not... Read More.
I started off my workout routine at my local gym as usual today around 6:00 pm. Around 6:30 I was working out on a machine I have used at another local gym. I am not new to this piece of equipment. It is the pull-down machine where you can do tricep extensions and similar exercises.... Read More.
My son told me that they usually play flag football in gym class at school, but this time they were outside playing a football game which ended up being tackle football. A much bigger kid threw my son down pretty hard and he landed on his knee. Then, after trying to protect himself from the... Read More.
I was at a fitness gym inside the jacuzzi and got a cut on the bottom of my big toe. My concern is that there are dozens of people inside a jacuzzi each day, and I don’t know what cut me. I could have an infection or worse. When I got inside the jacuzzi I... Read More.
Two and a half years ago I was in an apartment complex gym with my friend who lived there. While I was using their machine it snapped and broke my scapula and sprained my wrist. The machine wasn’t installed properly by one of their maintenance men. I’m suing the owners of the property (a major... Read More.
My wife was hit in the head at the gym. She was walking into the bathroom and as someone was walking out, they swung the door open and hit her in the head with the door, leaving her bloodied on the floor with a gash down her forehead and eyebrow. I came in and took... Read More.