By Doyice Cotten
Dolores Vinson, a member of LA Fitness, slipped and fell when she stepped on a wet mat. She sued the club for negligence in their maintenance (Vinson v. Fitness & Sports Clubs, LLC, 2018). The club claimed protection based on a liability waiver in the membership agreement. The trial court granted the LA Fitness motion for summary judgment.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has named three conditions that must be met for a waiver to be enforceable.
1) It must not violate public policy.
2) The contract must be related to the parties own private affairs.
3) Each party must be a free bargaining agent to the agreement so that the contract is not one of adhesion.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court (Seaton v. E. Windsor Speedway, Inc., 1990) has stated that a liability waiver violates “. . . public policy only when they involve a matter of interest to the public or the state. Such matters of interest to the public or the state include the employer-employee relationship, public service, public utilities, common carriers, and hospitals.” The Court set a high bar to clear before a court may invalidate a contract on public policy grounds:
It is only when a given policy is so obviously for or against the public health, safety, morals or welfare that there is a virtual unanimity of opinion in regard to it, that a court may constitute itself the voice of the community in so declaring [that the contract is against public policy].
Vinson contended that the Exculpatory Clause is invalid because it contravenes public policy – specifically, she claimed that the waiver was against public policy because the claim involves a vital matter of public health and safety. Vinson relied on Leidy v. Deseret Enterprises, Inc. (1977) in which the plaintiff was injured when a physical therapist at the spa did not follow the directions of the doctor. The court agreed that the waiver was against public policy because the therapist violated a statute regarding physical therapists; subsequently, the court supported the claim that the waiver was unconscionable.
In its defense, L.A. Fitness contended that the waiver did not violate public policy because it constituted a contract between private parties and did not involve any public entity or concern. L.A. Fitness specifically pointed to this court’s recent decision in another slip and fall case (Toro v. Fitness International LLC., 2016). This court held that this same identical waiver was examined and found to not be contrary to public policy. The defendant also relied on Hinkal v. Pardoe (2016) in which a client was injured during a personal training session. The court again ruled the waiver was not against public policy.
The court stated that “Vinson was voluntarily engaged in recreational activity, attending the gym, and was subject to the Membership Agreement, an agreement between private parties.” She had produced no statute, administrative regulation, or legal precedent to support her case. Instead, she relied on mere suppositions of the public interest, which are insufficient to invalidate a contract provision for violation of public policy.
Accordingly, the court affirmed the trial court’s entry of summary judgment in favor of L.A. Fitness.