Connecticut Court Relies on Reardon Ruling in Declaring Health Club Waiver Violates Public Policy

By Doyice Cotten

Rac photos 015A woman was injured while working with a trainer employed by Planet Fitness. The trainer had lifted Butler onto a bosu balance ball and walked away. As she dismounted from the ball, she fell and suffered injury.

She filed suit claiming negligence; Planet Fitness countered with a liability waiver signed by the plaintiff as a defense. Part of the waiver language stated that the signer released Planet Fitness “from any responsibility or liability for any injury or damage to myself, including those caused by the negligent act or omission of [Planet Fitness].” Butler countered with a motion for summary judgment based on the fact that the contractual waiver violates Connecticut public policy.

The court stated that it is now well established in Connecticut quoting Reardon v. Windswept Farm, LLC, 280 Conn. 153, 159, 905 A.2d 1156 (2006) that, “the enforcement of a well drafted exculpatory agreement that releases a provider of a recreational activity from prospective liability for personal injuries sustained as a result of the provider’s negligence may violate public policy if certain conditions are met.

The court stated that the ultimate decision as to whether a particular exculpatory agreement is enforceable is a question of law based on three factors:

1-       the societal expectation that family oriented activities will be reasonably safe;

2-      the illogic of relieving the party with greater expertise and information concerning the dangers associated with the activity from the proper maintenance of the [activity]; and

3-      the fact that the release at issue was a standardized adhesion contract, lacking equal bargaining power between the parties, and offered to the plaintiff on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis.

The court, in examining these factors, stated the “Thousands, if not millions, of ordinary people go to gyms like Planet Fitness, and there is a societal expectation that such activities will be reasonably safe.” Additionally, it held that “It would be illogical to relieve a professional gym like Planet Fitness, with superior expertise and information concerning the dangers of activities conducted on its premises, from the responsibility of reasonable care in conducting those activities.” It went on to point out that this was obviously a standardized adhesion contract; that Butler lacked equal bargaining power; and that it was offered on a “take it or leave it basis.”

The defendants argued that the specific activity of bosu ball was an activity with “inherent risks” not covered by the Reardon doctrine. The court said, however, that one would not go to sky-diving or bungee-cord jumping activities expecting such activities to be risk-free. The court stated that

 . . .the societal expectation of gyms like Planet Fitness is entirely different. Ordinary people attend gyms like Planet Fitness hoping to achieve—what else?—fitness. They do not go to such establishments expecting physical risk.

It held that if the bosu ball activity is inherently risky, as claimed, “then the very act of directing an ordinary person to engage in that risky activity without proper supervision may itself be an act of negligence. A jury could, at a minimum, so find, and the defendants may not, consistent with public policy, shield themselves with the exculpatory clause in issue.”

The court granted plaintiff’s summary judgment motion that the contractual waiver violates the public policy of Connecticut.