Waivers of liability can be powerful defenses in certain personal injury cases, particularly in Florida in the wake of the Florida Supreme Court decision in Sanislo v. Give Kids the World. That case essentially stated waivers don’t have to be written in very specific language in order to be enforced, so long as it’s clear to those signing the legal rights they are giving up.
That is going to make it tougher for plaintiffs in certain personal injury cases to prevail where liability waivers exist. Each case will need to be considered on its merits.
In many cases, what will be required is proof defendant acted not only with negligence, but with gross negligence, which means with wanton disregard or lack of consideration for the safety and well-being of patrons/customers.
It’s this standard that was applicable in the recent California case of Grebing v. 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc., which went before the California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, Division Three.
According to court records, plaintiff suffered personal injury while exercising at defendant’s facility.
Plaintiff previously signed a membership agreement which included an exculpatory clause entitled “Release of Liability – Assumption of Risk.” The relevant portion of that agreement indicated plaintiff understood and voluntarily assumed risks of using the exercise equipment, including catastrophic injuries and possibly death. The clause stated signor released gym, its employees, officers, directors, volunteers, agents and contractors from any liability for any injury, whether related to exercise or not. Additionally, the statement indicated the gym could not be held responsible for defective products, as the center was focused on providing recreational services.
About one year into his membership, plaintiff was using an exercise machine at the facility know as a “low row machine,” which is used by sitting with one’s legs extended on pads and lifting weighs by pulling down a metal handlebar with both hands. As he was pulling on the handlebar, the clip that keeps the handlebar attached to the weights snapped, causing the handlebar to break free from the cable and strike him in the head. As a result, he suffered injuries to his neck, head and back.
A label on the equipment indicated users should make sure the safety clip is in proper working condition prior to use.
Gym employees would later testify they inspected the equipment daily, and problems were reported on average once or twice annually. With regard to the machine in question, there were reportedly no issues with the clips, although some on certain machines were missing.
Roughly 20 minutes before this incident, a fellow health club member reported to workers the clip on plaintiff’s machine (before he used it) was crooked. However, she did not indicate it was broken or not working.
Plaintiff filed his lawsuit asserting negligence, negligent products liability, strict products liability and breach of implied warranty of merchantability. He asserted the gym negligently maintained and controlled the machine that caused him injury, creating a dangerous condition.
Defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing the release was a complete defense for three of the four claims. On the fourth, the strict product liability claim, it argued it could not be held liable because it was not in the chain of distribution.
Trial court agreed, granting summary judgment to defendant, and appellate court affirmed. Because the release language was clear and unambiguous and plaintiff was unable to prove gross negligence, the claim was defeated.
Call Associates and Bruce L. Scheiner, Attorneys for the Injured, at 1-800-646-1210.
Grebing v. 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc., Feb. 19, 2015, California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, Division Three
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