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In Nebraska a release can defeat claims for gross negligence for health club injury

Palmer v. Lakeside Wellness Center, 281 Neb. 780; 798 N.W.2d 845; 2011 Neb. LEXIS 62

Manufacturer of the health club equipment was able to squeak out a win by making sure the equipment met the applicable standards when the treadmill was manufactured.

This case is a health club fitness which is interesting because it covers several legal issues in ways that most courts will not. It also points out some simple things you can do to keep yourself out of court or losing in court.

A husband and wife, plaintiffs, joined a health club. After five weeks at the club the wife, went to get on a treadmill. She did not notice it was running and upon stepping on the treadmill she was thrown backwards into an elliptical trainer. The plaintiff had an injured hand and chest from the accident.

The area around the treadmill was allegedly, not well lit, however the plaintiff had not complained about the lighting. When she stepped on the treadmill she looked at the control panel but did not look at the belt. The treadmill was in a row of treadmills and the treadmills on either side of the treadmill in question were running. The plaintiff also said the treadmill area was loud.

The plaintiff had been using treadmills for 21 years. She had been using treadmills at the defendants approximately five times a week for five weeks and had used the treadmill in question 10 to 15 times. When she joined the defendant health club she received instructions from a trainer, but she stated she did not need instructions on how to operate a treadmill. The plaintiff also had a treadmill at home.

When the plaintiff and her husband joined the defendant health club she signed two documents which contained releases. The first was titled Membership agreement what had a release that included the word negligence in the language of the contract. The second form was a health history questionnaire which was signed by the plaintiff and also included release language.

The plaintiff and her husband sued the manufacturer of the treadmill, Precor, and the health club, Lakeside Wellness Center for her injuries. She claimed both defendants were negligent and were grossly negligent. Precor was allegedly negligent in making a treadmill without proper safety features and the health club was liable for not providing adequate lighting around the treadmill. There was also a claim that the health club had modified the treadmill belt so that it was unsafe.

The trial court granted both of the defendant’s motions for summary judgment. The plaintiff appealed saying the trial court erred in:

(1) granting summary judgment in favor of Lakeside and Precor;

(2) holding that the waiver and release contained in the membership agreement and health history questionnaire signed by Palmer were clear, understandable, and unambiguous; and

(3) holding that Palmer assumed the risk of using the treadmill.

Summary of the case

The court first looked at the issue of the release. The court ignored the issues of whether the release worked against negligence and reviewed the issues of releases and claims of gross negligence. However before starting its analysis, it dismissed Precor’s argument that it was a third party beneficiary of the release.

A third party beneficiary of a contract is usually identified as someone who is not named in the agreement, but obvious to all parties that they are to receive benefits of the agreement. An example would be a contract between a health club and a supplier of fitness equipment. The third party beneficiaries of that agreement would be the membership of the health club. When the third party beneficiary is not obvious in the agreement then the third parties as usually not construed as beneficiaries and do not have an interest in the contract.

In order for those not named as parties to recover under a contract as third-party beneficiaries, it must appear by express stipulation or by reasonable intendment that the rights and interest of such unnamed parties were contemplated and that provision was being made for them. The right of a third party benefited by a contract to sue thereon must affirmatively appear from the language of the instrument when properly interpreted or construed.

Here the court found that the agreement between a member and the health club did not identify the defendant manufacture by name or by any other identification. Because of that, the manufacturer could not be a third party beneficiary of the release.

Court then went back to the issue of the claim of gross negligence. Under Nebraska law gross negligence is defined as

Gross negligence is great or excessive negligence, which indicates the absence of even slight care in the performance of a duty. 5 Whether gross negligence exists must be ascertained from the facts and circumstances of each particular case and not from any fixed definition or rule.

Under Nebraska law the court could rule on whether the allegations of the complaint give rise to gross negligence. Here the court found the allegations did not. Inadequate lighting and the installation of a new belt on the treadmill did not meet the level needed to prove gross negligence.

Precor, the making of the treadmill in its motion to the trial court presented an affidavit stating that at the time the treadmill was made the treadmill “met or exceeded the voluntary guidelines set by the American Society for Testing and Materials” The affidavit included photographs of the treadmill to show what handrails existed and the fact that treadmill came with a clip that could be attached to the user’s clothing. If the clip was pulled it would disconnect and stop the treadmill. The treadmill was also made 7 years prior to the accident.

The plaintiff hired an expert who stated that the treadmill “should” have various safety features that were not on the treadmill. The court took note that the plaintiff’s expert did not say the treadmill had to have, did not speak in absolutes with regard to the safety features. Because the plaintiff’s expert was hesitant or could not be explicit on what was missing the court held that Precor was not negligent.

A third defense was raised on appeal, assumption of the risk, by the defendants. Because the court had dismissed the claims raised by the plaintiff already, the court did not get into that defense.

So Now What?

Obviously the better your release the greater your chances of winning. However there are several other issues here that you should pay attention too.

The plaintiff claimed that her injury was due to the fact the new belt on the treadmill did not contain markings that would indicate the treadmill was moving. If you replace or repair something, make sure you use equipment that meets the manufactures specs when you bought the machine or better. If the manufacturer had markings on the treadmill belt that indicated that the belt was moving you need to install a replacement belt that has similar markings.

Moreover, if you have the opportunity, whether or not the original belt was marked, to install a belt with markings, why not.

The assumption of the risk defense was not discussed by the court in its analysis, but was definitely part of the facts. In this case the defense team was able to elicit a lot of treadmill experience from the plaintiff. Many times, after an accident, the plaintiff will change their story. Getting experience or history up front is always safer.

And why not!

Why not include in your release language that protects everyone you can from litigation. There was a claim by the husband that one of the people running on the treadmill next to the one at issue had left that treadmill on. In some states, that would be enough to bring that other gym member into the suit. Write your release to keep you out of a lawsuit, also write it to keep everyone associated with your or that you benefit from out of the lawsuit. Just because you might not be named as the negligent party, you can still be brought in by the person who is named as the defendant. Protect you, your employees, other guests, visitors, volunteers, sponsors, and manufacturers dependent on what you do.

How many new customers are going to sign up as members if the word gets out you allowed one of them to be sued for an accident to another member.

If you do hear of problems from your guests or members, you need to respond. One issue that would have made the outcome different in this case would be a stack of “accident forms” or complaints about the lighting. If the plaintiff could prove that the lighting was bad because other people had complained about it or blamed it for their injuries, then I believe this would have had a different outcome. Don’t collect paperwork, solve problems.

 

Plaintiff: April Palmer

 

Defendant: Lakeside Wellness Center, Doing Business as Alegent Health, and Precor, Inc.

 

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence and Gross Negligence

 

Defendant Defenses: Release, Assumption of the Risk

 

Holding: for the defendants

 

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