By Doyice Cotten
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In 2016, the Delaware Supreme Court addressed a case in which a Planet Fitness health club member was injured when a cable broke on a seated rowing machine (Ketler v. PFPA, LLC). In a subsequent Superior Court case in 2017, a member of 24/7 Club Fitness was injured when the rubber grip on the pull-up bar detached causing the member to lose her grip on the bar (Mackenson v. Anthony).
Each club relied upon a waiver of liability contained in the club membership agreement. The waivers were similar in nature. Pertinent parts of the Planet Fitness waiver were:
In consideration of my participation . . . I understand and voluntarily accept this risk and agree that Planet Fitness will not be liable for any injury, . . . resulting from the negligence of Planet Fitness or anyone on Planet Fitness’ behalf … . Accordingly, I do hereby forever release and discharge Planet Fitness from all claims … or causes of action.
The waiver used by 24/7 Club Fitness read in part:
24/7 Club Fitness … are not responsible for any injury … suffered while participating in club activities, using equipment, … for any reason whatsoever, including ordinary negligence on the part of CF, its agents, or employees. … I am voluntarily participating in club activities with knowledge of dangers involved and hereby release and covenant not to sue CF, … from any and all present or future claims resulting from ordinary negligence on the part of CF or others listed.
The Planet Fitness Case
The Supreme Court stated that waiver of prospective negligence is valid if three conditions are met.
1) The waiver must be “clear and unequivocal.” It pointed out that the Planet Fitness waiver expressly releases the club from any liability for any injury resulting from PF negligence; it specifies “any and all claims or causes of action.” Thus, the first condition was met.
2) The waiver must not be unconscionable; it then defines “unconscionable” as follows:
- A contract in which “no man in his senses and not under delusion would make on the one hand, and as no honest or fair man would accept, on the other.”
- Mere disparity between the bargaining powers of the parties does not constitute unconscionability.
- There must be an absence of meaningful choice and contract terms unreasonably favorable to one of the parties.
The court then stated that the plaintiff had a choice to accept the membership or not. Thus, the second condition was met.
3) The waiver must not violate public policy. The court stated that public policy is typically determined by the Delaware General Assembly; and since no statute is found that bars waivers of prospective negligence, they are not against public policy. The third condition was met; the waiver was ruled enforceable; and the Supreme Court affirmed the trial court ruling granting summary judgment to Planet Fitness.
The 24/7 Club Fitness Case
The Superior Court followed the precedent of the Supreme Court using near identical language. There was one more issue in this second case. The plaintiff had signed the waiver and membership agreement in the space allotted for the legal guardian of a minor instead of the space allotted for the member signature. The court ruled that this error was inconsequential since the intent was clear, his name was listed at the beginning of the document, he admitted he was a member, and he initialed the document in several places.
The 24/7 Club Fitness motion for Judgment on the Pleadings was granted.
Photo Credit: Thanks to Lisa Picard via Flickr.