Victims who suffer injuries at gyms and fitness clubs face many challenges when it comes to evaluating the merits of their claims and their right to recover damages. Among these are issues associated with liability waivers signed by members and guests, as well as arrangements where gyms hire personal trainers as independent contractors rather than employees.
But just because liability waivers have been signed or injuries occurred under the watch of an independent contractor does not mean victims are without options.
As illustrated in a case handled by Biren Law Group, experienced counsel can help plaintiffs investigate issues salient to their claim and explore available strategies to establish fault and liability.
Biren Law Group represented a Plaintiff who suffered a severe wrist injury when her personal trainer negligently conducted an accelerated sprint exercise. Specifically, the Plaintiff was instructed to run full speed down a track while the trainer held bands attached a harness on her body. The harness was not designed for this type of exercise.
While conducting the sprint-resistance exercise, the personal trainer released the bands, which were still attached to the Plaintiff’s harness. This caused the bands to immediately lose resistance, trail behind the Plaintiff as she sprinted at full speed, and ultimately flip up and entangle the Plaintiff’s feet.
As a result, the Plaintiff fell and suffered a significant, life-altering wrist injury.
Case Issues: Membership Agreement, Negligence, Trainer Employment Status & Fraud
The case introduced three critical questions that needed to be resolved before Defendants could accept responsibility:
- Did the liability waiver in the trial membership agreement signed by the Plaintiff prior to working out with the Defendant trainer preclude her from pursuing a negligence claim against the Defendants?
- Was the personal trainer negligent?
- Was the personal trainer an employee of the gym and thus covered under the gym’s liability policy.
1. Liability Waiver in Gym Trial Membership Agreement
Gyms and fitness centers often require signature of liability waivers, typically as part of a membership agreement, before members and guests can use their facilities. These agreements generally limit members to filing claims only when they can prove gross negligence (which is a difficult standard to meet) or that the prevailing contract was invalid or did not apply.
In the absence of gross negligence, Biren Law Group’s first objective was to establish that the liability waiver contained in the trial membership agreement signed by the Plaintiff was not in effect at the time of the incident.
For this, BLG meticulously reviewed the contract, terms of the trial membership, and relevant case law, which made it clear the liability was only applicable during the 7-day trial period. This allowed the Plaintiff to:
- Defeat the defendant’s arguments that the liability waiver precluded the claim;
- Establish that the Plaintiff was not subject to the liability waiver.
Further, this legal maneuvering placed the Plaintiff in a position from which she only needed to prove negligence, rather than gross negligence, against the defendants.
To address the issue of negligence, BLG retained one of the state’s top gym experts who was familiar with the type of workout the trainer had tried to perform and the correct type of equipment that should have been used.
Through the expert, the Plaintiff was able to prove that the Defendant’s failure to use the correct equipment:
- Created the dangerous condition wherein the bands remained attached to the Plaintiff and dragged by her feet as she sprinted full speed.
- Increased the risk of injury exponentially.
Specifically, the expert opined that the Plaintiff should have been wearing a harness with straps that detach when the sprinter is released by the trainer, thereby eliminating the risk of the sprinter tripping.
3. Gym Liability
Lastly, BLG had to contend with arguments from the Defendant gym that because the personal trainer was an independent contractor and not an employee, the gym could not be held liable. Generally, employers are vicariously liable for damages caused by employees in the course of their work, but not for damages caused by independent contractors.
This was a significant hurdle, as the Defendant trainer’s lack of insurance made the gym’s policy the only meaningful source of coverage to compensate the Plaintiff.
Through meticulous investigation, BLG was able to identify a number of ways the Defendant trainer held himself to be an employee of the gym. Evidence gathered in the investigation found:
- The defendant trainer was listed on the listed on the gym’s website as a “coach”.
- Numerous images online showing the Defendant trainer in clothing with the gym’s logo.
- The defendant trainer told his clients that he worked for the gym.
This evidence provided the leverage by which BLG was able to compel the Defendant trainer to obtain representation and formally request that the gym’s insurance policy cover his defense, and ultimately to the insurance carrier’s acceptance of coverage for the defendant trainer.
Exposure of Fraud by the Defendant and Defense Counsel
Throughout the course of BLG’s meticulous investigation, it was discovered that the gym owner, as well as his defense attorney, engaged in multiple acts of fraud. BLG learned that the gym owner, a man who had previously trained Olympic-level athletes, was essentially a con artist who had been found guilty of serious doping offenses in the past.
Additionally, this same gym owner was unaware about the specific substantive critical liability discovery responses he supposedly verified under oath—responses that had been served by his defense counsel. BLG followed the trail of crumbs to the defense attorney herself. Upon further investigation, it became evident the defense attorney had forged her client’s signature—a major ethical breach for which an attorney may lose their license.
As a result of significant pressure applied by BLG into investigation of the fraud issue, and in an effort to avoid embarrassment from the exposure of said fraud, the defense counsel requested that a mediation be set before the second deposition of the defendant ordered by the court. At this mediation, the case settled for top dollar.
Upon conclusion of this case, the defense attorney who committed fraud and forgery was fired from her firm.
Key Lessons from This Case
Plaintiffs’ attorneys must clear various hurdles in their efforts to help clients successfully resolve claims, and they can be justified in assessing potential actions by how significant those hurdles seem. Still, counsel should be careful of viewing obstacles involving liability waivers, independent contractors, or other preclusive circumstances as insurmountable upon initial review.
As demonstrated in this matter, identifying the critical issues of a claim and taking a systematic approach to their investigation can allow plaintiffs’ attorneys to uncover viable strategies in claims that may be dismissed upon cursory examination. When arguments begin to take shape, ample evidence and expert witnesses can provide further credibility and leverage to reach a positive outcome.