Causes of Personal Trainer Lawsuits — Part I

Part I – Client Medical History

By Doyice Cotten

Rac photos 016Personal trainers should guard against the temptation to try to help every potential client. The trainer should realize that 1) some potential clients pose a significant risk for the trainer; 2) the trainer’s knowledge, experience, and ability to prescribe safe exercises for some conditions are limited; and 3) that it may be better to sometimes tell the client that you do not feel confident in prescribing an exercise program for them.

Three cases are summarized below in which trainers were approached by potential clients, were informed that the client had experienced significant physical problems (usually in the back or neck), and in some cases had already undergone surgery for the problem. In each case, the trainer prescribed a program, worked with the client, and at some point the result was significant re-injury and subsequent surgery.

In a recent New York case (Baldi-Perry v. Kaifas, 2015), the trainer worked with the client for some time and then changed the program to a competitive program consisting of five burpees, five jumping jacks, and five dead-lifts performed as fast as possible. The client questioned the change and was told the trainer was a professional and to trust him. She was seriously injured, has undergone a number of surgeries since, and will be in pain for the rest of her life.

The trainer did not have a current personal trainer certification, kept no documentation of the training, had no current continuing education, and used no screening test. The award was 1.4 million dollars, reduced by 30% for client contributory fault.

In another New York case (Layden v. Plante, 2012), Layden informed Plante of a history of back problems and herniated discs. On the first day, the trainer instructed her and supervised her in a program of weight lifting. She then gave Layden a set of written instructions and told her to do the exercises again on her own. Two days later, while following the written instructions she re-injured her back doing a Smith squat and underwent surgery for two herniated discs. The lawsuit alleged improper instruction, including the claim that the written instructions include the direction to “stick butt out,” but does not mention keeping the back straight. The case was sent to trial to determine the fact issue of whether the trainer unreasonably heightened the risks of weight lifting.

In Jafri v. Equinox Holdings (2014), a New York personal trainer was informed of a history of lower back problems by the client. During a workout, the trainer had Jafri perform squats with a heavy weighted barbell that involved a fishing maneuver. After a tiring series of lifts, the client performed eccentric pulls by running on the gym floor away from the trainer who pulled on a large rubber band wrapped around the client’s waist. Plaintiff felt a pop in his lower back. After the workout he had a deep tissue massage and thereafter was unable to walk. Jafri alleged the trainer prescribed dangerous activities and failed to give plaintiff simple beginner workouts to build up.  The case was remanded to trial.

Risk Management Summary
These are just three examples of personal trainers who were sued after being warned of a serious medical history. When a trainer encounters a potential client with a serious medical history – whether it involves a bad back, a bad heart, or just a significant knee history – several risk management approaches come to mind.
1. If you accept them as a client, proceed very slowly.
2. Require a well-written waiver that includes previous conditions.
3. Most important, have the client clear your training program with his or her physician prior to beginning the program.