By JoAnn Eickhoff-Shemek, Ph.D.
Fitness Law Academy, LLC
I am pleased to be able to bring you this article by JoAnn Eickhoff-Shemek. Dr. Eickhoff-Shemek is a well-known leader and authority in the Fitness Industry. She is an emeritus professor at the University of South Florida and is the lead author of Risk Management for Health/Fitness Professionals: Legal Issues and Strategies and a contributing author of The Australian Fitness Industry Risk Management Manual. Her latest project is a new Fitness Law Academy Newsletter designed specifically for fitness professionals. Today’s post is taken from the first issue of the newsletter so that you can see the quality of information that is now available to you and its FREE!. Click here for your free subscription! djc
In July 2017, the New York Times published an article entitled “As Workouts Intensify, a Harmful Side Effect Grows More Common”– an article focusing on exertional rhabdomyolysis (rhabdo). This article summarized three rhabdo cases occurring after participation in high-intensity spin classes that were initially described by physicians in an article published in The American Journal of Medicine (1).
In these three cases, the patients experienced signs and symptoms of rhabdo 2-4 days after their spin class. In one case, the spinning class was only 15 minutes, and in another case, the patient experienced renal failure that required hemodialysis. The authors warn that high-intensity exercise in spinning classes can create significant risks, especially for the novice exerciser. They reported 46 similar cases in the medical literature with 42 of these occurring after the individual’s first spin class.
An interesting outcome of the New York Times article was the high number (827) of comments submitted by the readers. The comments were both positive and negative, with some reflecting a good understanding of exercise safety principles such as progression and overload and others complaining about instructors continually pushing their riders to exercise harder.
One reader commented:
“Seems like if you’re paying for an exercise class you can expect the instructor to know something about exercise. They should be held accountable”.
Fitness instructors can and have been held accountable. Dr. JES has contributed to a case as an expert witness involving exertional rhabdo (and other severe injuries) that resulted after the plaintiff’s first indoor cycling class. There are many negligence cases against group exercise instructors and their employers. Employers are often named as defendants in negligence cases along with the instructor based on a legal doctrine called respondeat superior in which employers can be liable for the negligent conduct of their employees. This should be a strong incentive for managers and owners to hire only qualified and competent instructors.
Additional Injuries from Indoor Cycling Also Lead to Negligence Lawsuits
Other types of injuries also have occurred in indoor cycling classes. In Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC (2) and Scheck v. Soul Cycle East 83rd Street, LLC (3), the plaintiffs were injured in their first class when the instructors had them move from a seated position to a standing position. Stelluti suffered neck and back injuries when the handlebars disengaged because the pop pin was not secure – she fell forward with her feet remaining in the straps. Scheck suffered a torn quadriceps muscle in his right leg when the machine grabbed his leg while the pedals on the bike kept revolving with his feet strapped in.
In both cases, the instructors provided “some” instruction on how to use the bike but omitted important safety instructions. In Stelluti, the court ruled that the waiver signed by the plaintiff protected the defendants. In Scheck, the defendants argued that the plaintiff assumed the risks. However, the court did not agree and ruled that the instruction provided to Scheck did not include certain instructions that should be provided to new spinners, according to Soul Cycle training manual. For the “primary assumption of risk” defense to be effective, the plaintiff must fully understand, appreciate the risks and voluntarily assume them. Because the instruction provided to him was inadequate, especially given the fact he was a novice, he did not fully understand and appreciate the risks.
Can These Types of Indoor Cycling Injuries and Litigations Be Prevented?
Absolutely YES! Instructors of group exercise programs need formal education in exercise science that includes practical training and evaluation of teaching abilities BEFORE becoming an exercise leader. It is doubtful in the above cases that the instructors completed such training but perhaps they possessed some type of certification. Employers need to realize that individuals that possess certifications are not necessarily qualified and competent – a much more thorough assessment of their knowledge and skills is needed in the interview process.
Legal/Risk Management Tip #1:
It is important to understand a legal doctrine called respondeat superior in which employers can be held liable for the negligent conduct of their employees.
Legal/Risk Management Tip #2:
To refute (or defend) negligent lawsuits, defendants often rely on two common defenses: (1) waiver defense – protects defendants from their own “ordinary” negligence, e.g., injuries due to negligent instruction, which occurred in Stelluti (2) primary assumption of risk defense – protects defendants when injuries occur due to inherent risks, but the plaintiff must know and fully understand the inherent risks which did not happen in Scheck.
Legal/Risk Management Tip #3
Negligent conduct occurs two ways:(1) omission, e.g., failure to instruct as demonstrated in Stelluti and Scheck, (2) commission, e.g., improper instruction as demonstrated in the rhabdo cases where the instructors pushed novices above their limits.
- Brogan, M, Ledesma, R, Coffino, A, & Chander, P. (2016). Freebie rhabdomyolysis: A public health concern. Spin class-induced rhabdomyolysis. The American Journal of Medicine, 130(4), 484-487.
- Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286 (N.J. LEXIS 750, 2010).
- Scheck v. Soul Cycle East 83rd Street, LLC. In: Herbert, DL. (2015). Assumption of risk defense in bicycle spinning class denied. The Exercise, Sports and Sports Medicine Standards & Malpractice Reporter, 4(3), 38-40.
Photo Credit: Thanks to USAG-Humphreys on Flickr.