A Pennsylvania Superior Court last week upheld a lower court's judgment in favor of Gold's Gym in a case disputing the validity of its membership agreement.
The court, by a 7 to 2 margin, rejected plaintiff Melinda Hinkal's appeal challenging whether the agreements she signed to join Gold's Gym released it from liability for injury. Hinkal ruptured the C5 disc in her neck while working out on weight equipment during a personal training session in August 2010. The injury required two surgeries. (Read the court's majority opinion and the dissenting opinion at the bottom of this page.)
Hinkal claimed negligence against the trainer, Gavin Pardoe, and negligence against Gold's Gym in her complaint filed in trial court. She alleged Pardoe put too much weight on the piece of equipment and instructed her to continue the workout without recognizing she had a serious injury.
The trial court supported Gold's Gym motion for summary judgment to dismiss Hinkal's claims based on the membership agreement and a personal training agreement with Pardoe. The trial court concluded the membership agreement was valid and enforceable, and determined there were no genuine issues of material fact to warrant a jury trial. The summary judgment in favor of Gold's Gym was appealed and reversed by a divided panel before returning to the Superior Court again before the entire bench.
Hinkal's lawyers presented three issues for consideration for the Superior Court:
- Whether the guest card signed by the appellant covering the six-day trial period had expired before the appellant’s injury occurred
- Whether the waiver on the back page of the membership agreement signed by the appellant is valid and enforceable
- Whether the waiver encompasses reckless conduct
In the majority opinion written by Judge Victor Stabile filed Jan. 22, the Superior Court waived the issue related to the guest card because it was not addressed in the argument section of Hinkal's brief. Hinkal received the guest pass in June 2010 and signed the membership at the end of the six-day trial period. It was the provisions signed in the membership agreement that applied on the day that Hinkal was injured, not the guest card, according to the court.
The membership agreement included the words "Notice: See other side for important information" in bold type below the signature line. Hinkal admitted in trial court that she did not read the agreement before signing it, and the Superior Court said her failure to read the agreement does not render it invalid or unenforceable.
"Here, without reading it, [Hinkal] signed the membership agreement, which included an unambiguous directive not to sign before reading both sides, a clear pronouncement that the terms on both sides of the form are part of the agreement, and a straightforward statement that the agreement constitutes the entire agreement between the parties," the opinion reads.
The case law cited in trial court called an exculpatory clause valid when three conditions are met: the clause must not contravene public policy, the contract must be between persons relating to their own private affairs, and each party must be a free bargaining agent to the agreement so that the contract is not one of adhesion.
The majority opinion said those conditions were satisfied, but Judge Anne Lazarus departed from the majority on two of the conditions in writing the dissenting opinion. Lazarus argued an exculpatory clause in the context of a health club membership contravenes public policy and the contract language is ambiguous with regard to whether personal training sessions are included within the standard health club membership.
The majority determined Hinkal was not afforded any relief under reckless conduct because she did not assert claims of reckless conduct prior to the appeal.