Designing Your Gym: Follow the Guidelines or Risk Exposure

What can your health club learn from the Jimenez v. 24 Hour Fitness court case on complying with the ASTM standards and treadmill spacing? We asked an attorney to break it down.

Virtually every health club membership agreement includes a waiver and release of liability and express assumption of risk. In all but a handful of states, a well-written release will shield the club from liability for its negligence. However, for public policy reasons, the vast majority of states will not permit the release of claims arising out of gross negligence.

Gross negligence is often defined as the “want of even scant care” or “an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.”

Typical health club claims such as slip and falls, or equipment malfunctioning will not usually rise to the level of gross negligence so long as the club has reasonable maintenance and inspection policies in place. However, a few years ago a California Court of Appeal wrote an opinion that could have far-reaching repercussions, which every health club owner should be aware of.

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Jimenez v. 24 Hour Fitness

In Jimenez v. 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc. (2015) 237 Cal. App. 4th 546, the plaintiff sustained significant injuries when she fell from a treadmill and struck her head on an exercise machine approximately 3 feet, 10 inches behind the treadmill.

In a section titled “Treadmill Safety Features,” the treadmill manufacturer’s owner’s manual instructed: “[I]t is important to keep the area around the treadmill open and free from encumbrances such as other equipment. The minimum space requirement needed for user safety and proper maintenance is three feet wide by six feet deep … directly behind the running belt.”

The manufacturer’s assembly guide for the treadmill also said to provide a minimum 6-foot clearance behind the treadmill for “user safety” and maintenance. None of the 21 treadmills at the subject 24 Hour location had a 6-foot safety clearance.

24 Hour brought a motion for summary judgment claiming that the release in the plaintiff’s membership agreement barred her claim. Plaintiff opposed the motion claiming, among other things, that 24 Hour’s actions constituted gross negligence which could not be barred by the release. The trial court granted 24 Hour’s motion finding that, as a matter of law, a space of 3 to 4 feet—as opposed to the recommended 6-foot safety zone—cannot constitute gross negligence, because “it does not reflect an ‘extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.’” The court reasoned that 24 Hour’s placement of the treadmill at most constituted ordinary negligence which was barred by the release in the plaintiff’s membership agreement.

The Court of Appeal Reversed

The evidence presented by the plaintiff that the Court of Appeal relied upon to reverse the trial court included:

  1. the treadmill manufacturer’s owner’s manual instructed that the minimum space requirement needed for user safety and proper maintenance is 3 feet wide by 6 feet deep;
  2. the manufacturer’s assembly guide for the treadmill also instructed that the treadmill requires a minimum 6-foot-deep clearance behind it “for user safety and proper maintenance”; and
  3. plaintiffs’ expert’s declaration regarding the importance of providing the safety zone behind the treadmill.

Given this evidence, the Court of Appeal held that a jury could reasonably find that:

  1. it is standard practice in the industry to provide a minimum 6-foot safety zone behind treadmills;
  2. 24 Hour did not provide this minimum 6-foot safety zone; and
  3. the failure to provide the minimum safety zone was an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.

While the Court of Appeal did not actually find that 24 Hour’s conduct constituted gross negligence, it did find it to be a question that needed to be decided by a jury. This is significant because often a case can be disposed of without a trial based upon the release. The costs and risks associated with trial are significant.

“In all but a handful of states, a well-written release will shield the club from liability for its negligence.”

Indeed, courts have acknowledged that summary judgment fulfills the laudatory purpose of expediting litigation and eliminating the waste of time and money that results from an utterly needless trial. Justice requires that a defendant be as much entitled to be rid of an unmeritorious lawsuit as a plaintiff is entitled to maintain a good one. Therefore, courts are encouraged to dispose of cases through summary adjudication when the undisputed facts show that the plaintiff’s claim is barred by a release.

The moral of the Jimenez story is that your health club’s design may be closely scrutinized. While a club owner may attempt to include as much equipment as possible in an effort to better serve the club’s members, failing to follow manufacturer or industry guidelines on equipment placement may expose the club to a claim of gross negligence. And a claim of gross negligence typically cannot be defeated by even the most well-written release.

Therefore, manufacturer guidelines on machine placement and safety should be strictly followed. Further, ASTM and other industry standards should also be reviewed and complied with. While there is no way to assure that every personal injury claim can be defeated, there is no need to expose yourself unnecessarily, and proper equipment placement is one area where exposure can be minimized.

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Anthony Ellrod

Anthony Ellrod, Esq. is a partner with Manning & Kass, Ellrod, Ramirez, Trester, LLP, where he heads the firm’s Sports and Recreation Team. This team’s practice focuses on both drafting and reviewing agreements and defending cases involving general negligence, premises liability, products liability, employment, and contract issues for the firm’s fitness and recreation clients.