Shape Up On Your Fitness Law!

By Lily Nhan, Esq.

Summer solstice, June 22, officially kicked off the beginning of the Summer season.  For some, summer solstice also marked the beginning of beach and outdoor festivity season. Many are inspired to get in tip top shape for those short sleeves, short shorts and bathing suits. Consequently, gyms, recreational facilities, and public parks will become more crowded with motivated individuals who may or may not be aware of the risks of the activity. It is important to remember that an increase in foot traffic in these gyms and recreational spaces will result in more exposure to personal injury.

In personal injury matters occurring in gyms and recreational facilities, the doctrine of assumption of the risk is more likely to apply.  Ordinarily, a person owes a duty to avoid injury to others.  Failure to do so is called “Negligence.”  Assumption of risk applies where conditions, or conduct that might be viewed as dangerous and are an integral part of the sport or activity itself and relieves the property owner of liability.

Most activities in the gym are within the penumbra of activities involving an element of risk or danger as an integral part of the activity.  For example, in Rostai v. Neste Enterprises (2006), a man suffered a heart attack during his first session with a personal trainer. Plaintiff sued the gym and asserted the physical trainer’s exercise was too rigorous for him, who was visibly not in shape. The court found that the gym facility was not liable for the man’s heart attack, as the gym had no duty to eliminate the risks inherent in personal training.

Working out without the guidance of a fitness instructor or trainer does not eliminate the assumption of the risk of that activity.  In Balinton v 24 Hour Fitness, USA (2017), a gym patron was injured while on a “hack squat” machine.  The gym had two different hack squat machines from different manufacturers.  One had a “safety break” to prevent the machine from descending all the way to the bottom of the frame, and another that did not.  The plaintiff used the machine without the safety break and was injured when his legs became fatigued and he was forced into a “crunch position.”  The Court of Appeal determined that the gym was not liable for plaintiff’s injuries, despite the plaintiff’s “subjective awareness or expectation” that the machine should have had a safety break like the other machine model.  Plaintiff could not establish that industry standard required a safety break for “hack squat” machines.

Assumption of risk is not limited to exercise only.  In the recent case of Anderson v. Fitness International (2016), a man sustained injuries when he slipped in the gym shower.  The plaintiff signed a membership agreement releasing the gym from all future claims of negligence. Public policy, however, bars the advance release of “gross negligence.”  Plaintiff had the burden to establish that the gym was “grossly negligent” and knew about the dangerous condition or failed to attempt any ameliorative measures. Plaintiff could not meet his burden to prove that the gym facility knew there was dangerous amounts of water and soap on the shower floor, or failed to clean it.  Further, plaintiff could not establish that the risk in using the shower facility was unknown to him.  After all, shower floors are meant to get wet.

So maybe you’re thinking the solution is to exercise outdoors? Assumption of risk also extends to activities outside in open areas.  In Bertsch v Mammoth Community Water District (2016), a skateboarder was killed while cruising downhill when his wheel caught in a gap around a manhole cover.  The Court of Appeal found that primary assumption of risk barred any claims against the manhole cover owner, as falling is an inherent risk of skateboarding.

Sometimes, plaintiffs who are not even participating in an activity can be barred from recovery.  In Wang v Nibbelink (2016), plaintiff was knocked over and injured by a stray horse that ran off a nearby property at a wagon training event.  The landowners of the property that held the event used their property for recreational purposes.  As such, they were afforded recreational use immunity pursuant to Civil Code §846, even though the plaintiff was not participating or attending the horse riding event.

The Bottom Line:

This line of cases emphasizes that we should all exercise reasonable care when participating in physical activities and near places where people are participating in recreational activities, despite how harmless the activity appears or experienced you are in the activity. Exercising caution is the best exercise of all.