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Personal Trainer and Health Club in Illinois Survive a Claim of performing a Chiropractic Procedure

By Doyice Cotten

Gabriella Sosa-Gaines filed a negligence action against Capital Fitness and her personal trainer, Don Myles claiming injuries caused when the trainer pressed down in the area of her spine to relieve her discomfort during a training session (Sosa-Gaines v. Capital Fitness, Inc., 2019). She alleged the action was  a negligent “chiropractive type of adjustment maneuver.”

She had previously signed a membership agreement and a personal training agreement, each of which contained a waiver of liability.  Plaintiff argued that the waiver is not exculpatory because it does not cover a “chiropractic maneuvers.”

Plaintiff was performing her personal training program and was instructed by her personal trainer to lie on her stomach, take a deep breath, and exhale, whereupon the trainer forcibly pressed down on her spine. The trainer applied great force to her spine, causing injury.

The trainer testified that he had been certified for more than 20 years. He testified to being trained and qualified to do the “mild adjustment” that he performed on plaintiff. He acknowledged certain personal training guidelines and protocols that govern his work and testified to his compliance with those rules. The trainer demonstrated for the jury how he pressed on plaintiff’s back. He described the force as “gentle” or “light.” The trainer described how he had pressed on other clients’ backs many times and never caused injury.

Plaintiff did not rebut the trainer’s testimony. She did not present a witness to opine that the trainer’s action amounted to the practice of chiropractic medicine or was somehow beyond the scope of his employment.

Plaintiff and defendants filed motions for summary judgment — defendant relying on the exculpatory clause and plaintiff claiming the waiver did not protect against chiropractic adjustments. The trial court denied both motions and sent the case to the jury which ruled in favor the defendant, Capital Fitness.

 Appeal

In appealing, defendants asserted the trial court abused its discretion in barring plaintiff from characterizing the trainer’s action as a “chiropractic maneuver.”

Disclaimers, waiver, release and indemnification

The membership agreement included the following:

Member acknowledges that exercise, tanning, and use of the equipment and facilities of the company or of their affiliates naturally involves the risk of injury and medical disorders, including death, whether member, someone else, some activity or something causes it. Member agrees that member engages in all exercise, competition, and other activities operated, provided organized, arranged or sponsored by any of the company and their affiliates, either on or off the facility’s premises, and uses all facilities and services of company and their affiliates, at such person’s own risk. Such engagement and use includes, without limitation *** personal training or other instruction ***. You agree that you are voluntarily (a) participating in these activities and using the equipment and facilities based on such person’s own assessment of the risks and benefits, and not upon the representation, advice, or urging of any of the company and their affiliates and (b) assuming all risk of injury *** that might result from such participation or use ***.

Member shall hold company and their *** employees *** (‘released parties’) harmless from any and all loss, claim, injury, damage, and liability sustained or incurred by member from or arising out of the negligent acts and omissions and any other acts and omissions and alleged negligent acts and omissions and any other acts and omissions, of any of the released parties, any person at the facility or anyone else, or any occurrence arising out of or related to this agreement or arising out of or in any way related to member’s presence at or use of this facility ***. Without limiting the generality of the forgoing, you agree *** to release and discharge released parties from any and all claims or causes of action, and do hereby waive all rights that you may have *** to bring a legal action or assert a claim, for injury or loss of any kind against any of the released parties arising out of the negligent acts or omissions or other acts or omissions of any of the released parties or anyone else at the facility or at other facilities of the company or their affiliates or arising out of or relating to participation by you in any of the activities, or your use of the equipment, facilities or services that any of the company or their affiliates provides, or on account of any illness or accident ***. This hold harmless from and waiver and release of all liability includes, without limitation, (i) injuries, damages or diseases which may occur as a result of (a) your use of any facility or its improper maintenance, *** (d) negligent instruction or supervision *** and (ii) injuries or medical disorders resulting from exercise, or use of equipment or facilities, at the facility or any of the other facilities *** including but not limited to *** sprains, broken bones and torn muscles or ligaments, and injuries resulting from the actions and decisions made regarding medical or survival procedures.

* * *

This section disclaimer, waiver release and indemnification shall remain in effect perpetually. You acknowledge that you have carefully read this disclaimer, waiver, release, and indemnification and fully understand that it is a release of all liability except to the extent prohibited by law.” [Emphasis added.]

In addition, the personal training agreement provided:

Member covenants, represents and warrants that member has not received, is not receiving and shall not receive any medical advice from company or its agents or independent contractors. Member is not relying in any way upon any information supplied to member by company, its agents or independent contractors. Member represents and agrees that he/she is physically able to undertake personal training session and this training program and does so at member’s sole risk.

Member acknowledges that company is not a licensee, medical care provider and does not and will not offer medical advice. Member understands that participating in any exercise session or program including, without limitation, the training session or program can result in serious physical injury, including but not limited to death and agrees to do so at his/her own risk.

The plaintiff argued that the trainer had acted as an unlicensed “chiropractic physician” under the Medical Practice Act of 1987 (225 ILCS 60/2, 49 (West 2016)). Hence, the defendants violated the membership agreement, which provided in part that “none of the company is a medical care provider, that none diagnoses examines or treats any medical condition and that none offer medical advice.”

The appellate court considered that

The trainer’s testimony could have supported a reasonable inference that he did not use force sufficient to injure plaintiff, and therefore defendants did not breach their duty of due care. Such a finding would have resulted in the general verdict for defendants, without the jury ever considering the affirmative defense.

Furthermore, defendants challenged proximate cause by presenting evidence that plaintiff did not even suffer an injury. Plaintiff testified that she told the trainer that she felt “electrical zapping” in her back after the manipulation, and he recommended that she consult a chiropractor. About 10 minutes after the trainer pressed on plaintiff’s back, she left the facility, picked up her 2 ½ year old child from daycare, and drove home. She told the jury that the zapping became more intense on the ride home, but she waited several days before seeking medical treatment. She described the pain as electrical, zapping, and stabbing in the area of her shoulder blades and up and down her back. But she also admitted to suffering a work injury to her back in 2005 from reaching for a box on a ledge.

Further, there was a real question as to the extent of the injury as her doctors reported that her pain was unexplained by the pathology of her spine. The jury had determined that no injury had been proved.

In addition, plaintiff failed to provide expert testimony that the action by the trainer was indeed a chiropractic adjustment.

Conclusion

The appellate court stated that it was not clear whether the trial court considered the waiver in its decision. Regardless, based on the reasons discussed above, the appellate court affirmed the lower court’s ruling in favor of the defense.

Risk Management Take-away

In this case, the defense had a waiver that would probably protect Capital Fitness in most situations. Nevertheless, they could have lost the case because there are limits to the scope of all waivers. Had the court determined that this was indeed a “chiropractic maneuver”, the waiver might not have protected. Trainers  and clubs should be careful in seeing that they do not exceed their qualifications.

Photo Credit: Thanks to WorldSkills UK via Flickr.

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