Waiver Law in Pennsylvania: Personal Trainer vs. Licensed Physical Therapist

By Doyice Cotten

A 2010 court ruling in Pennsylvania (Taylor v. L.A. Fitness International, 2010 Phila. Ct. Com. Pl. LEXIS 252) illustrated a difference in the effectiveness of waivers depending upon who the relying party is. The plaintiff was injured while under the care of a personal trainer provided by L.A. Fitness. She alleged that the trainer taught her an improper exercise, failed to properly assist or sport her, and that his negligence caused her shoulder injury.

Ms. Taylor had signed a waiver contained in her membership agreement as well as a separate assumption of risk and exculpatory agreement. She alleged, however, that the waivers were unenforceable because they were against the public policy of Pennsylvania. In ruling against her, the court held that the state has a public policy of enforcing exculpatory agreements and has done so in the past.

It is interesting to note that in the following discussion the court “called attention to the fact that its analysis would have been entirely different if the Plaintiff had been working under the supervision of a licensed physical therapist.” It referred to an earlier case (Leidy v. Deseret Enterprises, Inc., 242 Pa. Super. 162) in which a plaintiff had been referred to a health club by her doctor as part of post-operative treatment following surgery on the lumbar area of her spine. The plaintiff was given treatment that was directly contrary to her doctor’s instructions to the club. The court had discussed the public policy and public interest in context of the potential pitfalls of allowing physical therapists to limit liability by entering into exculpatory agreements. It stated that “The public has an interest in assuring that those claiming to be qualified to follow a doctor’s orders are in fact so qualified and accept responsibility for their actions.”

In Pennsylvania, the legislature created the Board of Physical Therapy to establish rules and procedures to regulate physical therapy. In contrast, so such board exists for personal trainers and no recognized statewide standard of care exists for health clubs or health club employees (personal trainers).

So, currently in Pennsylvania and most, if not all states, personal trainers can utilize waivers and releases to gain protection from their liability for negligence. On the other hand, professionals such as physical therapists, doctors, and nurses are generally unable to make use of such exculpatory agreements.