You Be the Judge: Injury Caused by Collapsing Massage Chair

By Doyice Cotten

Check out your waiver savvy on this case! Vicki Taylor, an Atrium employee, received a free massage provided to hospital personnel for “Hospital Appreciation Week” by MHR Solutions, LLC d.b.a. Massage Envy and Atrium Medical Center.

Prior to the massage, Vicki signed a waiver of liability which included the following language,

You understand and voluntarily accept any risks of which you have been advised about associated with your massage, or from any use of the company’s facilities, and hereby release Massage Envy (including its employees, practitioners, agents, and insurers) from all liability for any injury, including, without limitation, personal, bodily, or mental injury, economic loss or any damage to you resulting there from. You further hereby release all of the foregoing personnel and entities from all liability arising from such injury or damage resulting from your failure to disclose any pre-existing condition, limitation, or specific sensitivities, or your failure to inform your therapist of any discomfort during the session.

When Vicki sat in one of the massage chairs, it collapsed and she was injured. She subsequently filed a lawsuit alleging negligence against Massage Envy and Atrium. The defendants held that Vicki’s claims were barred by the waiver she had signed. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Massage Envy and Atrium; she has appealed claiming the incident was not within the scope of the waiver – asserting that the waiver did not apply to the defective massage chair.(Taylor v. Atrium Medical Center, 2019)

What Will the Ohio Appellate Court Rule?

Please do NOT scroll down to see the result until you have determined

  • 1) how you would rule if you were the judge and
  • 2) how you think the judge ruled.

Now, what do you think will be the ruling? That the waiver did relieve the defendants of their liability for negligence? Read the waiver again. Here are two facts that might influence your decision:

  • Ohio public policy strongly supports the enforcement of contracts.
  • However, Ohio law also says “a waiver must state a clear and unambiguous intent to release the party from liability for its negligence.”

Now, for the ruling . . .

Vicki argues in the assignments of error that the trial court erred

  • By granting summary judgment in favor of Massage Envy and Atrium because Vicki’s release did not apply to the massage chair.
  • That a jury must decide if the release applies to her given that she did not understand the potential risks associated with sitting in a massage chair

Ohio Law

A negligence claim is barred by the plaintiff’s valid execution of a release of liability of future tortious conduct.  Such exculpatory clauses are not favored by the law, and are thus strictly construed against the drafter unless the language is clear and unequivocal.  Nonetheless, “courts routinely apply such releases to bar future tort liability as long as the intent of the parties, with regard to exactly what kind of liability and what persons and/or entities are being released, is stated in clear and unambiguous terms.”

On the other hand, where the language of the release is ambiguous or too general, courts have held that the intent of the parties is a factual matter for the jury.  “The pivotal inquiry is whether it is clear from the general terms of the entire contract, considered in light of what an ordinary prudent and knowledgeable party of the same class would understand, that the proprietor is to be relieved from liability for its own negligence.”

Does the Waiver Apply to the Chair?

Vicki‘s argument that the waiver did not include the massage chair was crushed when the court gave the definition of  “facilities.” The unambiguous language of the release references the term “facilities,” which includes a “place, amenity, or piece of equipment provided for a particular purpose.” (Emphasis added.) English Oxford Dictionary (2019). The court stated that the waiver clearly covers risks from “any use of the company’s facilities,” which includes the chairs because the chairs are pieces of equipment used by Massage Envy employees for the particular purpose of giving massages. The court noted that “While one may not automatically anticipate injury from a massage chair collapsing, it is not necessary to be able to predict with exact particularity, how the event causing the injury will unfold.”

Failure to Understand the Risks of the Chair

Regarding whether a jury must decide if the release applies to her given that she did not understand the potential risks associated with sitting in a massage chair, Vicki is also wrong. Despite Vicki’s arguments, whether she knew of the potential risks associated with sitting in the massage chair does not impact the fact that she agreed to release the company from liability when using its chair.

Further, the court noted that the condition of the chair had no impact on the enforceability of the release since the waiver language did not include reference types of equipment or the condition of equipment. The waiver stated “any risks” from “any use” of Massage Envy’s facilities. “Inclusivity” seems to be the watchword in this day and age; well, that is about as “inclusive” as you can get.

Ruling (by now you have guessed it, right?)

After reviewing the record, the court found that Massage Envy and Atrium are entitled to judgment as a matter of law because no genuine issues remain for litigation given the inclusion of Vickie’s injury in the release of “any risks” associated with “any use of the company’s facilities.”  The summary judgment in favor of the defendants was affirmed.

If you got the same result as the court, rate yourself as a Supreme Court Justice.

Yours was different? Don’t worry. Some judges would agree with you, rate yourself as a Trial Judge.

Keep in mind, however, that this case was tried under Ohio law and that waiver law varies by state. This waiver would not have been enforced in some states because it did not specify that the waiver applied to negligent actions by the provider.

Photo Credit: Thanks to Mags Upholstery via Flickr.