If an appellate court's decision this week to reverse a summary judgment in favor of 24 Hour Fitness, San Ramon, California, eventually leads to a jury trial, a potential decision against 24 Hour could affect how club operators position their gym equipment.
The plaintiff in the case, Etelvina Jimenez, was severely injured at a Sacramento 24 Hour Fitness in 2011 when she fell off a moving treadmill and hit her head on a leg exercise machine behind the treadmill.
This case could affect the clearance space required behind each treadmill, and it could make some operators wonder whether their liability releases are worth the paper they are printed on.
Jimenez's lawyers accuse 24 Hour Fitness of gross negligence, arguing the machine's placement approximately 46 inches behind a treadmill was not the six-foot clearance recommended in the treadmill manufacturer owner's manual. 24 Hour Fitness argued an industry standard for a treadmill safety zone does not exist, and said it was not liable because Jimenez signed a liability release when she joined the gym two years earlier.
The California appellate court reversed the lower court's ruling, finding gross negligence a triable issue of fact in this case and stating an injury liability release cannot absolve gross negligence. The court cited California's definition of gross negligence as a "want of even scant care" or "an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct."
Jimenez's claim of gross negligence stands on this question: Does a fitness industry standard exist for safety zones around treadmills?
The 4th Edition of the American College of Sports Medicine's Health/Fitness Facility Standards and Guidelines is the document that most people in the industry refer to, according to Club Industry Consulting President Steve Tharrett, who did not speak specifically to this case. That document does not have a standard relating to treadmills or spacing between equipment. It only has guidelines for how many square feet to allocate for equipment.
Tharrett, however, says a standard exists in the ASTM International Standard F2115-05. That document states 20 inches should be left clear on either side of the treadmill, and 39 inches should be clear behind the treadmill.
"This standard, while not widely known by club operators, is very well known by the equipment manufacturers and has been effectively used in court cases," Tharrett said, adding that he has served as an expert witness in treadmill cases.
If ASTM is the official standard in the industry, then the 46 inches that 24 Hour had behind the treadmill would be more than sufficient.
A statement from 24 Hour Fitness issued to Club Industry described the company's approach to equipment safety zones:
"At 24 Hour Fitness, our members’ safety is of the utmost importance, and we want everyone to have a good experience in our clubs. Our equipment layout reflects considerations including Americans with Disabilities Act legislation, equipment manufacturers’ recommendations, members’ preferences, and our own experience that has led us to make every effort to make as much space available as possible to the rear of treadmills."
The court emphasized it did not pass judgment on the plaintiff's merits but was viewing the allegations in the light most favorable to Jimenez as required by law.
The court said a jury could reasonably find an industry standard practice of a minimum of a six-foot safety zone behind treadmills, based on the evidence presented in superior court.
The court said this as part of its 20-page opinion filed on Tuesday:
"When one thinks of the minimum safety zone recommended by the treadmill manufacturer in terms of the height of adult human beings and the high likelihood of a person falling off a treadmill impacting nearby equipment as close as three feet, it seems clear that the reduced zone established by 24 Hour here can hardly be considered a 'safety' zone at all. Accordingly, it strikes us that a departure of two to three feet from the recommended minimum six-foot safety zone makes a great difference under these circumstances. Without any expert testimony indicating otherwise and in light of plaintiffs’ expert’s declaration corroborating the manufacturer’s directions and the financial motivation that can be inferred from the evidence, we cannot agree that as a matter of law, the spacing of the machines demonstrates at least scant care and is not an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct."
So, club operators, what will it mean to you if this case sets six feet as the clearance standard behind treadmills? Will you follow that, or will you continue to follow the ASTM standard or another standard? And how do you feel about the liability release not protecting 24 Hour at this point?