This article by Doyice Cotten originally appeared in Fitness Management. Sport, fitness, and recreation professionals often describe a situation involving an injury and ask if they are liable. This article will help others to quickly determine if he or she might be liable in an injury situation.
Robert Craig, a 75-year-old client, was injured when the “dip station” on which he was exercising tipped over. When Craig and the station fell backward, Craig struck his neck on a nearby piece of exercise equipment. The installation instructions from the manufacturer directed the installer to anchor the apparatus to the floor using the pre-drilled holes in its frame. Craig sued the club alleging that the club was negligent and grossly negligent 1) in failing to anchor the dip station to the floor, 2) in failing to post warning signs specifying the risks involved, and 3)for placing the equipment too close together. (Craig v. Lakeshore Athletic Club, Inc., 1997 Wash.App. LEXIS 907).
Fitness professionals concerned with liability and risk management often encounter situations in which they wonder if they could be held legally liable. One can get a good indication of possible liability by answering the following questions. To be liable, one must respond “YES” to all four of the questions. One negative response means that there is no liability.
Was there a legal duty?
Premises liability law specifies an invitee is either a public invitee or a business visitor. A public invitee is one who is invited to enter a property for a public purpose (e.g., visit a city park) and a business visitor is one invited to enter a property for a purpose connected with the business activities of the operator (e.g., customer in a store, client in a health club). Operators owe both classes of invitees a duty to exercise due care to provide reasonably safe premises. If the operator knows or should know of a hidden hazard, he has the responsibility to correct the hazard or to adequately warn the invitee of the hazard.
Craig – as all club clients – would be classified as an invitee. Thus, Lakeshore Athletic Club clearly owed Craig a duty to exercise due care to provide reasonably safe premises.
Was the duty breached?
The question is whether Lakeshore breached its duty by failing to provide reasonably safe premises. Lakeshore did not follow the installation instructions accompanying the equipment. Further, an officer in the company that manufactured the equipment admitted that the equipment might tip over under certain circumstances. Lakeside also failed to post the warning signs provided by the manufacturer and stationed the equipment close to other equipment. While the court maintained that these actions did not constitute gross negligence, there is no doubt that a jury might determine that the actions amounted to ordinary negligence – a breach of the duty to exercise due care.
Was the breach of duty the proximate cause of the injury?
Next, one must determine if the breach of duty by Lakeshore was what actually caused the incident and injury to occur. In other words, would the injury have happened had Lakeshore bolted the equipment to the floor, warned of any danger, and placed the equipment farther from other pieces of equipment? Obviously, the machine would not have tipped over and the client would not have fallen had the machine been properly secured to the floor – thus, the breach would seem to be the proximate cause of the injury.
Was there compensable bodily injury or emotional harm?
There was no question as to damage. The 75-year-old client sustained obvious physical injury when he struck his neck on the nearby piece of equipment. Thus, there was compensable bodily injury.
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Hence, having answered “yes” to each of the four questions, we would determine that Lakeshore might be liable for negligence. Had the response to any one of the four questions been “no,” there would be no liability.
NOTE: When Craig joined the club, he had signed a liability waiver relieving Lakeshore of liability for injuries resulting from the ordinary negligence of Lakeshore, thus the court determined that Lakeshore owed Craig no duty of ordinary care. Therefore, even though Lakeshore was negligent, they were not liable. Had Lakeshore’s acts constituted gross negligence, the waiver would not have protected.
How does this relate to Risk Management?
The answer to this one is easy. Providers may reduce their risk tremendously if the provider 1) has a clear understanding of its legal duties to its clients and 2) does not breach those duties. Thus, fewer injuries, fewer lawsuits, and less risk.