The California Court of Appeals has affirmed a ruling that 24 Hour Fitness, San Ramon, CA, was not liable for a member's injury sustained at one of its clubs because the member had signed a valid release form.
The member, Timothy Grebing, contended in a lawsuit that the company's negligence led to his injury. He hurt his head, back and neck when a clip failed on a low row machine in May 2012 at a club in La Mirada, CA. A handlebar struck him on the forehead when it broke free from the cable.
According to an article on MetNews.com, the "club manager subsequently acknowledged that the machine had the wrong type of clip, and that a heavier-duty clip should have been used."
The appeals court panel, however, entered its judgment in favor of the defendant, 24 Hour Fitness, because Grebing "assumed responsibility for the risks arising from his use of the defendant's facilities, services, equipment, or premises."
Writing for the panel, Judge Luis Lavin said that "it is undisputed that 24 Hour took several measures to ensure that its exercise equipment and facility were well maintained."
The appellate court found that 24 Hour Fitness did not conduct gross negligence because 24 Hour was responsible for rendering the fitness services—not for the products within the club. Case in point: The facility did not manufacture the rowing machine that the member was injured on. As such, it couldn't be held liable for the product's liability.
"This is not an atypical outcome for a case like this," says David L. Herbert, an attorney for David L. Herbert and Associates LLC, in Canton, OH.
These types of cases are litigated frequently, Herbert says, and most of them are rendered in favor of the health and fitness facility. Most club operators require members to sign a waiver and release form, which is a good first line of defense, he says.
"If they are properly executed and administered, then the court will generally give credence to these kinds of release documents," Herbert says.
However, in some cases, the forms are not enough. Not all states recognize prospectively executed releases for health clubs, and if a gym is shown to display gross negligence, a judge may rule in favor of a plaintiff and deem the signed release invalid.
The 24 Hour liability form, which Grebing signed, covered "ordinary negligence," which is common language to include, Herbert says. The difference between ordinary and gross negligence is that in the case of gross negligence, a club intentionally and willfully sets out to harm a member.
For example, if a club modifies a piece of equipment or doesn't have a regular maintenance program, and a member gets injured on that piece of equipment, the club may be accused of gross negligence. Herbert says that club operators should not let members use equipment that has a known problem and should block members from using that equipment.