Friday, May 31, 2013

DISCLAIMER: You Have No Legal Rights For Injuries at Your Gym

Most everyone has or had a gym membership.  Some use it more than others.  From the small facility down the street to the colossal monstrosities like Lifetime Fitness, fitness centers come in all shapes and sizes, much like the people that frequent them.  Regardless of your gym’s size, however, they all have one thing in common.  They make their members sign a disclaimer prior to becoming a member.  Most people never read these disclaimers.  Likewise, most people never consider that they could suffer a catastrophic injury while working out at their gym.  Tell that to Sahal Hussein.    

In Hussein v. L.A. Fitness, 2013 IL App (1st) (2013), the Illinois Appellate Court examined a disclaimer signed by Sahal Hussein.  Sahal signed a fitness contract with L.A. Fitness.  He was severely injured when he fell off of an assisted dip/chin machine causing him to strike his head.  As a result of the fall, Sahal was rendered a quadriplegic.  The fitness contract that Sahal signed contained the following disclaimer: 

IMPORTANT: RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND INDEMNITY.  You hereby acknowledge and agree that Member’s use of L.A. Fitness’ facilities, services, and equipment or premises involves risk of injury to persons and Member assumes full responsibility for such risks.  Member hereby releases and holds L.A. Fitness harmless from all liability to Member for any loss or damage, and forever gives up any claim or demands therefore, on account of injury to Member’s person or property, including injury leading to the death of Member, whether caused by the active or passive negligence of L.A. Fitness or otherwise, to the fullest extent permitted by law, while Member is in, upon, or about L.A. Fitness premises or using any L.A. Fitness facilities, services, or equipment.  Member has read this release and waiver of liability.

Sahal filed suit against L.A. Fitness for his catastrophic injury arguing that L.A. Fitness was negligent in failing to maintain and inspect its fitness equipment and by failing to monitor, supervise, or instruct club members on how to use the equipment.  L.A. Fitness filed a motion to dismiss arguing that the disclaimer trumped his personal injury action.  The trial court agreed and Sahal appealed. 

The Illinois Appellate Court examined whether the disclaimer at issue was valid.  First, the court sought to determine whether the disclaimer (exculpatory clause) was enforceable as a matter of law.  The court noted that the public interest in the freedom of contract generally allowed the enforceability of exculpatory clauses like the disclaimer at issue.  However, if a disclaimer is ambiguous, courts have been reluctant to enforce them.  The main question was whether the disclaimer was so vague, general, or broad so that it failed to properly alert the other party of the what legal rights they were signing away. 

Applying Minnesota law (where the agreement was originally signed) while also noting its striking similarity to Illinois law, the court determined that the disclaimer was “clear, explicit, and unequivocal.”  Id. at 19.  The court held that the disclaimer properly identified the range of dangers the fitness member was exposed to, the assumption of that risk, and alerted the member to exercise a greater degree of caution to protect him or herself.  Id.  The court also rejected Sahal’s public policy argument noting that as a private corporation, L.A. Fitness was under no legal duty to take on Sahal as a member.  Id.  As such, it “had the right to insist on the terms it deemed appropriate.”  Id.  Furthermore, the services provided by L.A. Fitness were not so essential to the general public so that public policy mandated that the disclaimer be disregarded.  Id. at 18.    

Remarkably, disclaimers like these are upheld much more often than they are negated.  Even more disturbing is that they can even to apply to someone hurt because of a defect on the fitness club’s shower floor or even if your personal trainer is negligent in the way in which he or she has you perform a particular exercise.  What if you are simply walking in the gym and a light fixture falls onto your head?  It would seem quite extreme to allow such a disclaimer wipe out your claim under those set of facts.  The message to fitness members can easily be gleaned from the court’s decision in the Hussein case.  Buyer beware!

What do you think about these disclaimers?  Do you think it is fair to allow a corporation to limit its liability even if the corporation negligently causes injury?  Or, on the other hand, should freedom of contract allow corporations to shift the risk of harm to its customers?    

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