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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