By Doyice Cotten
Patricia Washington was injured in a “boot-camp” group fitness class taught by Alisson Rosales (Washington v. Rosales, 2020). The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant, Rosales based on the waiver of liability signed by Washington. She claimed the waiver was rendered invalid by the Health Studio Services Act (Civ. Code, § 1812.80 et. seq.). In addition, she said the court erred by shifting the burden to her to demonstrate a triable issue of fact on the issue of gross negligence.
Rosales is the owner and operator of Fit Body Boot Camp Foothill Ranch. Washington signed a waiver of liability in 2012, 2014, and in 2016 – the year of the incident. The waiver stated she “waive[s] any and all rights, claims or causes of action of any kind whatsoever arising out of my participation in the Activity, and do[es] hereby release and forever discharge Fit Body Boot Camp, … their affiliates, managers, members, agents, attorneys, staff volunteers, … for any physical or psychological injury, including but not limited to illness, paralysis, death, damages, economical or emotional loss, that I may suffer as a direct result of my participation in the aforementioned Activity.” The waiver goes on to explicitly acknowledge that injuries may be caused by the “actions of others, including but not limited to, participants, volunteers, spectators, coaches, event officials and event monitors.” And finally, the waiver expressly includes a waiver of claims “for negligence on the part of Fit Body Boot Camp, Foothill Ranch, its agents, and employees.”
Washington was injured when she collided with another participant in a drill. An expert witness testified it was gross negligence. Overcrowding and conduct of the class in a dangerous manner were alleged. Washington’s expert witness concluded that Rosales’s management of the class at issue amounted to “gross negligence” because she “failed to review and adhere to industry standards and guidelines when she allowed up to 60 students to perform the farmer’s carry at the same time” and when she “allowed members to walk in opposite directions with minimum spacing and multiple rows.” He failed to indicate specific “standards and guidelines” that Rosales had violated.
The trial court granted Rosales’s motion for summary judgment, relying on the 2014 release to establish Washington’s waiver of any tort claims relating to her participation in Rosales’s class. The court noted that public policy prohibits the release of a claim based on gross negligence, but concluded there was no evidence Rosales had engaged in gross negligence in connection with Washington’s injury.
Appellate Court Points
Enforceability of Waiver. The court explained that the Health Studio Services Act is not applicable to a tort waiver; it stated that the act is a consumer protection law that applies to membership agreements; it creates specific limits on the financial commitments that may be extracted from health and fitness club members. It has no applicability to a tort liability waiver that establishes no membership or financial commitments.
Error in Shifting Burden of Production. Washington next contends the court erred by shifting the burden to her to demonstrate a triable issue of fact regarding gross negligence. The appellate court explained that Rosales’s motion was grounded on her affirmative defense of release, rather than on an assertion that one or more of the elements of Washington’s negligence cause of action could not be proven. “Therefore the burden properly shifted to Washington to demonstrate why the release did not relieve Rosales of liability.” Basically, the plaintiff failed to provide evidence of gross negligence, once Rosales presented prima facie evidence of the release.
The court stated that ‘A defendant moving for summary judgment has the burden of showing that a cause of action lacks merit because one or more elements of the cause of action cannot be established or there is a complete defense to that cause of action.‘” It explained that Rosales’s motion
… was based on her affirmative defense of waiver, rather than on negating any of the elements of Washington’s negligence cause of action. Consequently, once she established prima facie evidence of a relevant release executed by Washington—a valid defense to a cause of action for negligence—the burden shifted to Washington to demonstrate a triable issue of disputed fact.
A waiver in the context of sports or recreational programs or services, purporting to release liability for future gross negligence, generally is unenforceable as a matter of public policy. In California, there is no separate cause of action for “gross negligence.” Washington’s use of that word did not alter the fact that her cause of action was for negligence—and thus waiver was presumptively a defense to that cause of action.
The court went on to say that “In any event, if Rosales had the initial burden to negate the existence of gross negligence, we would conclude she did so here. The evidence offered in support of her motion included evidence that she was an “excellent” trainer, that she personally supervised the class in which Washington’s injury occurred, and that she “was actively involved in the class to ensure that the activities were performed safely and properly.” Rosales also offered evidence that the class included only 25-30 participants, and it was not overcrowded as Washington alleged.
For all of these reasons, the court found no error in the trial court rulings.
Risk Management Take-Away
The provider should keep accurate records of activities, instructions, and numbers of participants. Further the provider should be knowledgeable about the professional standards and guidelines for the activity. One more point, this case involves California law which may different significantly from the law in your state. Regardless, a general rule might be that waivers of gross negligence are unenforceable in most, if not all, states.
Photo Credit: Thanks to Seattle Parks & Recreation via Flicka.