Waiver Fails to Protect Sports club in a Trip and Fall Case

By JoAnn M. Eickhoff-Shemek, Ph.D., FACSM

Dr. Eickhoff-Shemek is Professor Emeritus, University of South Florida (USF) and is President of the Fitness Law Academy, LLC (www.fitnesslawacademy.com). This post originally appeared in the Fitness Law Academy Newsletter, Vol 1, Issue 4 (October, 2018). You may subscribe to the quarterly newsletter free of charge at www.fitnesslawacademy.com.

Case Brief: Crossing-Lyons v. Towns Sport International, Inc. (d/b/a New York Sports Club)

FACTS

Historical Facts

When Janet Crossing-Lyons became a member of New York Sports Club, she was required to sign a waiver and release which included in part:

This waiver and release of liability includes, without limitation, all injuries which may occur as a result of … (a) your use of all amenities and equipment in the facility; (b) your participation in any activity, including, but not limited to, classes, programs, personal training sessions or instruction; and (c) the sudden and unforeseen malfunctioning of any equipment (p. 1).

On the day of her accident, Crossing-Lyons was on her way to meet her trainer when she tripped over a weight belt that was left on the floor by another member, which resulted in substantial injuries requiring hip surgery. She claimed the trainer knew of the existence of the weight belt and failed to remove it, despite the fitness center’s policy to pick up items left on the floor.

Procedural Facts

The plaintiff, Crossing-Lyons, filed a complaint against the New York Sports Club charging the club with negligence due to failing to pick up the weight belt off the floor. The club filed a motion of summary judgment, which was granted by the trial court. In dismissing the case, the trial court judge relied on Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises L.L.C, 203 N.J. 286 (N.J. Lexis 750, 2010) in which the waiver protected the defendants for an injury due to negligent instruction. Crossing-Lyons appealed this decision arguing that the trial court judge misapplied the Stelluti decision. She contended that the exculpatory clause was unenforceable and requested the order to grant summary judgment be reversed.

ISSUE

Whether or not the waiver signed by the plaintiff, would    absolve the New York Sports Club of liability for its negligence to properly carry out its common law duty owed to invitees.

COURT’S RULING

No, the waiver did not absolve the club from liability for the injury incurred to the plaintiff. The trial court erred and its decision to grant summary judgment was reversed.

COURT’S REASONING

The appellate court stated that a business owner “has a duty to guard against any dangerous conditions that the owner knows about or should have discovered; and to conduct reasonable inspections to discover latent dangerous conditions. Any attempt to limit these conditions by directing patrons to sign exculpatory agreements requires careful attention by our courts” (p. 1) especially given that historically, exculpatory clauses are disfavored in law. The exculpatory agreement, signed by Crossing-Lyons, was unenforceable because it violated a common law duty of care that the fitness center owed to its invitees. “It adversely affects the public interest by transferring the redress of civil wrongs from the responsible tortfeasor to either an innocent injured party or society-at-large” (p. 2).                                                                                    

In making its decision, the appellate court relied on Walters v. YMCA, 437 N.J. Super. 111 (App. Div. 2014). In this case, the plaintiff’s injury, like the injury incurred by Crossing-Lyons, occurred while on the premises (in Walters, the plaintiff slipped on a step leading to the indoor pool) versus from participation in physical activity or using the exercise equipment. The injuries suffered by Crossing-Lyons and Walters could have occurred in any business setting. A waiver to protect from these types of injuries is not enforceable because it adversely affects the public interest. If the plaintiff’s injury was due to negligent instruction as in Stelluti, the waiver might have protected the defendant.

Acknowledgment: Thank you to Taylor (Shimshock) Locke, M.S., for her assistance in preparing the Crossing-Lyons case brief. Taylor received her master’s degree in Exercise Science at USF in May 2018.

Photo Credit: Thanks to Herry Lawford via Flickr.