Kang v. LA Fitness, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 179934, 2016 WL 7476354

Kang v. LA Fitness, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 179934, 2016 WL 7476354

Soon Ja Kang Plaintiff,

LA Fitness, LA Fitness of South Plainfield, John Does 1-5, et al., Defendants.

Civil No. 2:14-cv-07147 (KSH) (CLW)

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

December 29, 2016

NOT FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

Katharine S. Hayden, U.S.D.J.

Before the Court is defendants’ motion for summary judgment as to the validity and enforceability of an exculpatory clause in a fitness center membership agreement with plaintiff. For the reasons set forth below, the Court finds the liability waiver to be valid and enforceable and defendants’ motion is granted.

I. Background

Fitness International, LLC d/b/a LA Fitness (incorrectly designated as LA Fitness of South Plainfield) (“LA Fitness”) operates a fitness facility located in Piscataway, NJ. See Final Pretrial Order Stipulation of Facts (“SOF”) (D.E. 19), at ¶ 1. On December 30, 2013, plaintiff Soon Ja Kang went to LA Fitness with her husband to sign up for membership. Id. at ¶ 2. The membership agreement she signed states in relevant part:

IMPORTANT: RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND INDEMNITY. You hereby acknowledge and agree that use by Member and/or Member’s minor children of LA Fitness’ facilities, services, equipment or premises, involves risks of injury to persons and property, including those described below, and Member assumes full responsibility for such risks. In consideration of Member and Member’s minor children being permitted to enter any facility of LA Fitness (a “Club”) for any purpose including, but not limited to, observation, use of facilities, services or equipment, or participation in any way, Member agrees to the following: Member hereby releases and holds LA Fitness, its directors, officers, employees, and agents harmless from all liability to Member, Member’s children and Member’s personal representatives, assigns, heirs, and next of kin for any loss or damage, and forever gives up any claim or demands therefore, on account of injury to Member’s person or property, including injury leading to the death of Member, whether caused by the active or passive negligence of LA Fitness or otherwise, to the fullest extent permitted by law, while Member or Member’s minor children are in, upon, or about LA Fitness’ premises or using any LA Fitness facilities, services or equipment. Member also hereby agrees to indemnify LA Fitness from any loss, liability, damage or cost LA Fitness may incur due to the presence of Member or Member’s children in, upon or about the LA Fitness premises or in any way observing or using any facilities or equipment of LA Fitness whether caused by the negligence of Member(s) or otherwise. You represent (a) that Member and Member’s minor children are in good physical condition and have no disability, illness, or other condition that could prevent Member(s) from exercising without injury or impairment of health, and (b) that Member has consulted a physician concerning an exercise program that will not risk injury to Member or impairment of Member’s health. Such risk of injury includes (but is not limited to): injuries arising from use by Member or others of exercise equipment and machines; injuries arising from participation by Member or others in supervised or unsupervised activities or programs at a Club; injuries and medical disorders arising from exercising at a Club such as heart attacks, strokes, heat stress, sprains, broken bones, and torn muscles and ligaments, among others; and accidental injuries occurring anywhere in Club dressing rooms, showers and other facilities. Member further expressly agrees that the foregoing release, waiver and indemnity agreement is intended to be as broad and inclusive as is permitted by the law of the State of New Jersey and that if any portion thereof is held invalid, it is agreed that the balance shall, notwithstanding, continue in full force and effect. Member has read this release and waiver of liability and indemnity clause, and agrees that no oral representations, statements or inducement apart from this Agreement has been made.

LA Fitness Moving Br., Exh. E (D.E. 22-7).

Kang and her husband do not read or understand English, but their daughter was present to translate for them when they signed up. See SOF, at ¶¶ 4-5. Kang signed a membership agreement. She did not initial next to the waiver and liability provision in her membership agreement; however, her husband was asked to initial next to the same provision in his membership agreement, and he did so. Id. at ¶ 6.

On December 31, 2013, Kang was injured while working out on a chin/dip assist pull up machine at LA Fitness’s Piscataway location. See SOF, at ¶¶ 2, 7. She filed the instant action on September 29, 2014 in state court, and LA Fitness filed a notice of removal in this Court on November 14, 2014 on the basis of diversity jurisdiction (D.E. 1). The complaint alleges that Kang was injured as a result of negligence on the part of LA Fitness. Id. Prior to completion of expert discovery, LA Fitness moved for summary judgment on the issue of whether the waiver and liability provision bars the instant action. The motion was fully briefed. (D.E. 22, 25, 26).

The Court makes its decision on the paper.

II. Discussion

A. Standard

Summary judgment is warranted where the moving party demonstrates that “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a), (c). The parties have conducted discovery on the circumstances surrounding the formation of Kang’s membership agreement and, as set forth in the analysis below, all facts relevant to the enforceability of the waiver provision are essentially undisputed as set forth in the Final Pretrial Order Stipulation of Facts (D.E. 19). In determining whether the waiver provision is enforceable as a matter of law, the Court “view[s] the evidence in the light most favorable to [Kang] and draw[s] all justifiable, reasonable inferences in [her] favor.” Sgro v. Bloomberg L.P., 331 F.Appx. 932, 937 (3d Cir. 2009).

B. Analysis

Pursuant to the release and waiver of liability provision in her membership agreement, Kang released and held LA Fitness harmless for all injuries she might suffer “whether caused by the active or passive negligence of LA Fitness or otherwise, ” while she was “in, upon, or about LA Fitness’ premises or using any LA Fitness facilities, services or equipment.” LA Fitness Moving Br., Exh. E (D.E. 22-7). As her negligence claim for an injury allegedly sustained while using a piece of workout equipment at an LA Fitness facility clearly falls within the ambit of the liability waiver, the issue becomes whether the waiver itself is enforceable against Kang on the facts of this case.

In Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 408 N.J.Super. 435, 454 (App. Div. 2009), aff’d, 203 N.J. 286 (2010), the New Jersey Appellate Division addressed the enforceability of exculpatory releases in fitness center membership agreements:

Such a release is enforceable only if: (1) it does not adversely affect the public interest; (2) the exculpated party is not under a legal duty to perform; (3) it does not involve a public utility or common carrier; or (4) the contract does not grow out of unequal bargaining power or is otherwise unconscionable.

Id. The third factor is inapplicable here, because LA Fitness is not a public utility or common carrier. See Kang Opp. Br., at p. 6. The Court analyzes the remaining Stelluti factors in turn.

1. Does the Exculpatory Clause Adversely Affect the Public Interest?

LA Fitness argues that the exculpatory clause in this case does not adversely affect the public interest because it is “a facility that encourages New Jersey’s public policy promoting physical fitness.” LA Fitness Moving Br., at p. 6. Noting the important policy objective of promoting public health, the Stelutti court held:

[W]e are satisfied that, at least with respect to equipment being used at the club in the course of an exercise class or other athletic activity, the exculpatory agreement’s disclaimer of liability for ordinary negligence is reasonable and not offensive to public policy.

Stelluti, 408 N.J.Super. at 459. The Court agrees with the analysis in Stelluti and finds that the exculpatory clause here does not adversely affect the public interest, at least to the extent that it purports to exculpate LA Fitness with respect to acts or omissions amounting to ordinary negligence.

Kang argues that public policy promoting physical fitness “cannot counteract the other public policy reasons that are in place to protect against improper liability waivers.” Kang Opp. Br., at p. 7. To that end, she argues that the release in this case violates the New Jersey Plain Language Act, which states that “[a] consumer contract entered into on or after the effective date of this amendatory and supplementary act shall be written in a simple, clear, understandable and easily readable way.” N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-2. Specifically, Kang argues that the small font size and margins in the contract are such that “[s]omeone who can read and understand English would be substantially confused by this agreement[.]” Kang Opp. Br., at p. 8.

To determine whether the waiver provision violates the Plain Language Act, the Court turns to the plain language of the act itself. Section 56:12-10 provides:

To insure that a consumer contract shall be simple, clear, understandable and easily readable, the following are examples of guidelines that a court . . . may consider in determining whether a consumer contract as a whole complies with this act:

(1) Cross references that are confusing;

(2) Sentences that are of greater length than necessary;

(3) Sentences that contain double negatives and exceptions to exceptions;

(4) Sentences and sections that are in a confusing or illogical order;

(5) The use of words with obsolete meanings or words that differ in their legal meaning from their common ordinary meaning;

(6) Frequent use of Old English and Middle English words and Latin and French phrases.

N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-10. Section 56:12-10 further provides:

The following are examples of guidelines that a court . . . may consider in determining whether the consumer contract as a whole complies with this act:

(1) Sections shall be logically divided and captioned;

(2) A table of contents or alphabetical index shall be used for all contracts with more than 3, 000 words;

(3) Conditions and exceptions to the main promise of the agreement shall be given equal prominence with the main promise, and shall be in at least 10 point type.

Id. A Court has discretion as to how much consideration should be given to the above-listed statutory guidelines in finding a violation of the act. See Boddy v. Cigna Prop. & Cas. Companies, 334 N.J.Super. 649, 655 (App. Div. 2000).

Reviewing Kang’s membership agreement in light of the above guidelines, the Court finds that the waiver provision does not violate the New Jersey Plain Language Act. The waiver provision does not contain any cross references, nor does it contain any double negatives or exceptions to exceptions. It does not contain words with obsolete meanings, nor is it clouded by the use of Old English, Middle English, Latin or French phrases. And Kang does not argue-nor does the Court find-that the sentences of the waiver provision are set forth in a confusing or illogical order.

Instead, Kang argues that the waiver provision violates the Plain Language Act because “[t]he size of the font (print) is about size 8, whereas the standard size used in everyday documents is size 12[, ]” and because “[t]he margins on the sides of the pages are about 0.5 inch . . . reflecting the intentions of the drafter to squeeze in additional words.” Kang Opp. Br., at p. 8. However, applying the above guidelines, the Court does not find that the waiver provision in this case is any less prominent that the remainder of the agreement. See N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-10b(3). To the contrary, the waiver and liability provision is the only clause in the membership agreement preceded by a title in all caps (“IMPORTANT: RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND INDEMNITY”), and it is the only clause that is fully enclosed by a border, creating a visual separation between the waiver and the rest of the agreement.

The Court finds that the waiver provision in this case does not offend public policy under Stelluti and does not otherwise violate the New Jersey Plain Language Act.

2. Is LA Fitness Under a Legal Duty To Perform?

LA Fitness argues that its relationship with Kang does not create any duties prescribed by statute or regulation. See LA Fitness Moving Br., at pp. 6-8. New Jersey courts have found liability waivers to be invalid as against public policy where they conflict with legislatively imposed duties. For example, in Hy-Grade Oil Co. v. New Jersey Bank, 138 N.J.Super. 112, 118 (App. Div. 1975), the court found it against public policy for a bank to exculpate itself from liability or responsibility for negligence in the performance of its function as a night depository service, in part due to the “extensive statutory regulations covering every phase of the banking business[.]” Id. at 118. Similarly, in McCarthy v. Nat’l Ass’n for Stock Car Auto Racing, Inc., 48 N.J. 539, 543 (1967), the New Jersey Supreme Court held a liability waiver invalid as against public policy because it purported to contract away safety requirements prescribed by statute dealing with motor vehicle racing. See id. at 543 (“[t]he prescribed safety requirements may not be contracted away, for if they could be the salient protective purposes of the legislation would largely be nullified”).

Kang argues that “although there are no statutes specific to fitness centers, there are several national associations that have established standards that apply to the fitness industry[.]” Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 8-9. However, there is no indication that these national standards apply with the force of law in New Jersey so as to constitute public policy of the state. Kang further argues that the Stelluti court acknowledged the well-established duties of care that New Jersey business owners owe to patrons that enter their premises. See Kang Opp. Br., at p. 8. However, as noted above in Part B.1. supra, Stelluti expressly held that fitness center liability waivers such as the one at issue here do not violate public policy at least to the extent that they exculpate for ordinary negligence. Stelluti, 408 N.J.Super. at 459. The Court finds that LA Fitness is not under any legal duty that precludes its reliance on the liability waiver in this case.

3. Does the Contract Grow Out of Unequal Bargaining Power or is it Otherwise Unconscionable?

With respect to the final Stelluti factor, Kang argues that the waiver: (1) was not the product of mutual assent; and (2) is unconscionable as a term in a contract of adhesion. See Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 10-14. The Court addresses both arguments in turn.

a. Mutual Assent

Kang argues that the waiver was invalid for lack of mutual assent, based upon the following assertions: (1) Neither Kang nor her husband speaks English; (2) LA Fitness knew as much, as the Kangs’ daughter was present to translate; (3) an LA Fitness employee explained the contract duration and payment terms to the Kangs’ daughter, but did not explain the liability waiver to her; (4) only Kang’s husband was asked to initial next to the waiver provision in his membership agreement, but no one explained to him what he was initialing; and (5) no employee went over the waiver provision with Kang or her daughter. See Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 10-11. Accordingly, Kang argues that she did not “clearly, unequivocally, and decisively surrender[ ] her rights” as is required for a valid waiver. Id. at p. 11.

The Court finds these arguments unavailing. As an initial matter, Kang’s inability to speak English does not bar her from becoming contractually bound. Notwithstanding the fact that her daughter was present to translate, New Jersey courts have unequivocally held that in the absence of fraud, one who signs an agreement is conclusively presumed to understand and assent to its terms and legal effect:

In the absence of fraud or imposition, when one fails to read a contract before signing it, the provisions are nevertheless binding, and the party is conclusively presumed to understand and assent to its terms and legal effect . . . . Even illiterate individuals have been held bound by a signed contract in the absence of misrepresentation. One who signs a document in those circumstances should know its contents or have it read (or otherwise have the contents made known) to him or her.

Statewide Realty Co. v. Fid. Mgmt. & Research Co., 259 N.J.Super. 59, 73 (Law. Div. 1992) (internal citations and quotations omitted); see also Herrera v. Twp. of S. Orange Vill., 270 N.J.Super. 417, 423, 637 (App. Div. 1993) (enforcing release agreement in the absence of fraud, notwithstanding testimony by plaintiff that she did not understand the release because she could not read English).

Under the New Jersey case law cited above, absent allegations of fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation which Kang does not make here, she is conclusively presumed to have understood and assented to the membership agreement’s terms-including the waiver-and legal effect. See Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 305 (2010) (“Although Stelluti argues that she did not know what she was signing, she does not claim that she signed the waiver form as the result of fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation. Therefore, the trial court was well within reason to presume that she understood the terms of the agreement . . . and the finding to that effect is unassailable.”)

Nor does the fact that LA Fitness may not have explained the waiver to her or her daughter preclude enforcement. See Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 301- 02 (2010) (enforcing exculpatory clause while giving plaintiff benefit of inference that “Powerhouse may not have explained to Stelluti the legal effect of the contract that released Powerhouse from liability”).

Finally, the Court is not aware of, nor has Kang cited, any requirement that she must have initialed the waiver provision for that clause to be enforceable against her. While she did not initial the waiver provision, she did sign the membership agreement containing it. In the absence of fraud, that is enough to bind her to its terms. See Statewide, 259 N.J.Super. at 73.

b. Unconscionability

Kang also argues that even if the waiver is found to be enforceable, the Court should invalidate it as a contract of adhesion. “[T]he essential nature of a contract of adhesion is that it is presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, commonly in a standardized printed form, without the opportunity for the ‘adhering’ party to negotiate except perhaps on a few particulars.” Rudbart v. N. Jersey Dist. Water Supply Comm’n, 127 N.J. 344, 353, 605 A.2d 681, 685 (1992). Kang’s unconscionability argument is essentially an amalgamation of all of her arguments summarized above: that as someone who does not speak English she lacked the sophistication to understand the terms to which she was agreeing, LA Fitness knew that she was in no position to understand those terms, she did not initial next to the waiver provision, the waiver is one-sided and printed on a standard form agreement, and she was not in a position to negotiate the terms of the agreement. Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 12-14.

Notably, not all contracts of adhesion are unenforceable. In Stelluti, the New Jersey Supreme Court held:

Here, Powerhouse’s agreement was a standard pre-printed form presented to Stelluti and other prospective members on a typical ‘take-it-or-leave-it basis.’ No doubt, this agreement was one of adhesion. As for the relative bargaining positions of the parties, . . . we assume that Stelluti was a layperson without any specialized knowledge about contracts generally or exculpatory ones specifically. Giving her the benefit of all inferences from the record, including that Powerhouse may not have explained to Stelluti the legal effect of the contract that released Powerhouse from liability, we nevertheless do not regard her in a classic ‘position of unequal bargaining power’ such that the contract must be voided. As the Appellate Division decision noted, Stelluti could have taken her business to another fitness club, could have found another means of exercise aside from joining a private gym, or could have thought about it and even sought advice before signing up and using the facility’s equipment. No time limitation was imposed on her ability to review and consider whether to sign the agreement. In sum, although the terms of the agreement were presented ‘as is’ to Stelluti, rendering this a fairly typical adhesion contract in its procedural aspects, we hold that the agreement was not void based on any notion of procedural unconscionability.

Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 301-02 (2010).

Like the defendant in Stelluti, Kang was a layperson without any specialized knowledge of exculpatory contracts, and the Court gives her the benefit of the inference that LA Fitness did not explain the legal effect of the waiver provision to her. However, also like the defendant in Stelluti, Kang was not under any undue pressure to execute the agreement and she could have sought advice before signing. Indeed, her daughter was present to translate. As noted above, the fact that Kang does not speak English does have any legal effect on the contract’s enforceability. Thus, in accordance with Stelluti, the Court finds that although the LA Fitness membership agreement may have been offered on a “take-it-or-leave-it” basis, it is not void on the basis of unconscionability.

Because the exculpatory clause does not offend public policy, the Court finds it to be valid and enforceable. Accordingly, LA Fitness’s motion for summary judgment is granted.

III. Conclusion

For the foregoing reasons, defendants’ motion for summary judgment is granted, and the clerk of the court is direct to close this case. An accompanying Order will be filed.


Rarely do you see recreation or release cases from the District of Columbia; in this case, the appellate court upheld the release for an injury in a gym

Plaintiff’s arguments about the release and attempt to invalidate the release by claiming gross negligence all failed.

Moore v. Waller, et al., 930 A.2d 176; 2007 D.C. App. LEXIS 476

State: District of Columbia, District of Columbia Court of Appeals

Plaintiff: Richard J. Moore

Defendant: Terrell Waller and Square 345 Limited Partnership T/A Grand Hyatt Hotel

Plaintiff Claims: negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: for the defendant health club

Year: 2007

The plaintiff was a member of the exercise facility and had signed a release when he joined. One day while at the facility to exercise, he was asked by a kick boxing instructor to hold an Everlast body bag so the instructor could demonstrate kicks to the class. The plaintiff reluctantly did so.

The kick boxing instructor showed the plaintiff how to hold the bag. The instructor then kicked the bag five times in rapid succession. The plaintiff was out of breath after the demonstration and stated with irony that it was not hard to do.

A month after the class the plaintiff determined he had been injured from holding the bag and sued.

The defendants motioned for summary judgment with the trial court which was granted, and the plaintiff appealed.

Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.

The court stated that it did not often look at releases in this context. The court looked at Maryland and other states for their laws concerning releases as well as the release law in DC, which was mostly in other types of business contracts.

DC like most other states will not allow a release to stop claims for “intentional harms or for the more extreme forms of negligence, i.e., reckless, wanton, or gross [negligence].” The plaintiff did not argue the acts of the defendant were grossly negligent, but did argue the acts were reckless.

However, the court could find nothing in the pleadings that indicated the defendant’s actions were reckless. In fact, the pleadings found the instructors efforts to show the plaintiff how to hold the bag was for safety purposes and as such; safety is inconsistent with recklessness or gross negligence.

The appellate court also looked at the release itself and found it was clear and unambiguous.

…”exculpation must be spelled out with such clarity that the intent to negate the usual consequences of tortious conduct is made plain”; also recognizing that in most circumstances modern law “permit[s] a person to exculpate himself by contract from the legal consequences of his negligence”

The plaintiff also argued the release was written so broadly that it was written to cover reckless or gross negligence and as such should be thrown out. However, the court looked at the issue in a different way. Any clause in a release that attempts to limit the liability for gross negligence is not valid; however, that does not invalidate the entire release.

We disagree. “‘A better interpretation of the law is that any “term” in a contract which at-tempts to exempt a party from liability for gross negligence or wanton conduct is unenforceable, not the entire [contract].

This is the acceptable way under contract law to deal with clauses or sections that are invalid. However, many contracts have clauses that say if any clause is invalid only that clause can be thrown out; the entire contract is still valid.

DC recognizes that some releases can be void if they reach too far.

We, of course, would not enforce such a release if doing so would be against public policy. “An exculpatory clause [in a will] that excuses self-dealing [by the personal representative] or attempts to limit liability for breaches of duty committed in bad faith, intentionally, or with reckless indifference to the interest of the beneficiary, is generally considered to be against public policy.”)

However, releases found within health club agreements do not violate public policy.

However, we agree with the Maryland Court of Special Appeals and with numerous other courts which have held that it does not violate public policy to enforce exculpatory clauses contained in membership contracts of health clubs and fitness centers.

The appellate court upheld the decision of the trial court.

So Now What?

This decision does not leap with new information or ideas about releases. What is reassuring are two points. The first is releases are valid in DC. The second is when in doubt the court looked to Maryland, which has held that a release signed by a parent can stop a minor’s right to sue. See States that allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue.

If you are interested in having me write your release, fill out this Information Form and Contract and send it to me.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Moore v. Waller, et al., 930 A.2d 176; 2007 D.C. App. LEXIS 476

Moore v. Waller, et al., 930 A.2d 176; 2007 D.C. App. LEXIS 476

Richard J. Moore, Appellant, v. Terrell Waller and Square 345 Limited Partnership T/A Grand Hyatt Hotel, Appellees.

No. 05-CV-695

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA COURT OF APPEALS

930 A.2d 176; 2007 D.C. App. LEXIS 476

June 20, 2006, Argued

August 2, 2007, Decided

PRIOR HISTORY:  [**1]

Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (CA-1522-04). (Hon. Michael L. Rankin, Trial Judge).

COUNSEL: John P. Fatherree for appellant.

Terrell Waller, Pro se.

Rocco P. Porreco for appellee, Square 345 Limited Partnership.

JUDGES: Before GLICKMAN, KRAMER, and FISHER, Associate Judges.

OPINION BY: FISHER

OPINION

[*177]  FISHER, Associate Judge: Appellant Richard Moore claims that he was injured on February 26, 2001, while participating in a demonstration of kick boxing at Club Fitness, which is operated by the appellee, Square 345 Limited Partnership (hereinafter Grand Hyatt). Relying on a waiver and release of liability Moore signed when he joined the fitness center, the Superior Court granted summary judgment, first for Grand Hyatt and then for Terrell Waller, the instructor who allegedly injured Moore. We affirm.

I.

Plaintiff Moore alleged that he had gone to the fitness center on February 26, 2001, to exercise. Although “he was not participating in the kick boxing classes, the instructor [*178]  , defendant Waller, asked [Moore] to hold . . . a detached Everlast body bag, so [Mr.] Waller could demonstrate a kick to his class.” According to Mr. Moore, he “reluctantly agreed, saying to [Mr. Waller], ‘Not hard.’ Defendant  [**2] Waller showed [Mr. Moore] how to hold the bag, braced against his body, and then kicked the bag five times, in rapid succession, with great force.” He claims that when Waller finished, “he was out of breath from the strenuous effort, and commented with obvious sarcasm and irony, ‘That wasn’t hard, was it.'” Moore states that he “immediately felt trauma to his body,” felt “stiff and achy” the next day, and consulted a physician about one month later. Mr. Moore asserts that “[h]e has been diagnosed as having torn ligaments and tendons from the trauma of the injury, and may have neurological damage, as well.” The resulting limitations on his physical activity allegedly have diminished the quality of his life in specified ways.

Mr. Moore had joined the fitness center on January 16, 2001, signing a membership agreement and initialing that portion of the agreement that purports to be a waiver and release of liability.

Article V – WAIVER AND LIABILITY

Section 1. The Member hereby acknowledges that attendance at or use of the Club or participation in any of the Club’s activities or programs by such Member, including without limitation, the use of the Club’s equipment and facilities, . . . exercises  [**3] (including the use of the weights, cardiovascular equipment, and apparatus designed for exercising), [and] selection of exercise programs, methods, and types of equipment, . . . could cause injury to the Member or damage to the Member’s personal property. As a material consideration for the Club to enter into this Agreement, to grant membership privileges hereunder and to permit the Member and the Member’s guests to use the Club and its facilities, the Member, on its own behalf and on behalf of the Member’s guests, agrees to assume any and all liabilities associated with the personal injury, death, property loss or other damages which may result from or arise out of attendance at or use of the Club or participation in any of the Club’s programs or activities, notwithstanding any consultation on any exercise programs which may be provided by employees of the Club.

By signing this Agreement, the Member understands that the foregoing waiver of liability on its behalf and on the behalf of the Member’s guests will apply to any and all claims against the Club and/or its owners, shareholders, officers, directors, employees, agents or affiliates . . . for any such claims, demands, personal  [**4] injuries, costs, property loss or other damages resulting from or arising out of any of foregoing risks at the Club, the condominium or the associated premises.

The Member hereby, on behalf of itself and the Member’s heirs, executors, administrators, guests and assigns, fully and forever releases and discharges the Club and the Club affiliates, and each of them, from any and all claims, damages, demands, rights of action or causes of action, present or future, known or unknown, anticipated or unanticipated resulting from or arising out of the attendance at or use of the Club or their participation in any of the Club’s activities or programs by such Member, including those which arise out of the negligence of the Club and/or the Club and the Club affiliates from any and all liability for any loss, or theft of, or damage to personal property, including, without limitation, automobiles and the contents of lockers.

 [*179]  THE MEMBER, BY INITIALING BELOW, ACKNOWLEDGES THAT HE/SHE HAS CAREFULLY READ THIS WAIVER AND RELEASE AND FULLY UNDERSTANDS THAT IT IS A WAIVER AND RELEASE OF LIABILITY, AND ASSUMES THE RESPONSIBILITY TO INFORM HIS/HER GUESTS OF THE PROVISIONS OF THIS AGREEMENT.

If effective,  [**5] this provision waives and releases not only claims against the Club but also claims against its “employees [and] agents.” 1

1 We assume for purposes of analysis that the Grand Hyatt is responsible for the conduct of Mr. Waller at issue here, but we need not determine whether he was an employee or an independent contractor.

Ruling on Grand Hyatt’s motion for summary judgment, the trial court concluded:

The Waiver and Liability section of the contract . . . expresses a full and complete release of all liability for personal injury occurring in the fitness center. Moore signed an acknowledgment indicating that [he] had read and understood that he was releasing Grand Hyatt from all liability for personal injuries that he might sustain. Furthermore, there is no allegation of fraud or overreaching in the amended complaint. In the circumstances, the court finds that the waiver and release is valid and enforceable and is a complete defense for Grand Hyatt in this action.

The court later held “that the terms of the waiver . . . apply equally to defendant Terrell Waller….”

II.

This court has not often addressed the validity of exculpatory clauses in contracts. We have enforced them, however. For  [**6] example, “[i]t is well settled in this jurisdiction that a provision in a bailment contract limiting the bailee’s liability will be upheld in the absence of gross negligence, willful act, or fraud.” Houston v. Security Storage Co., 474 A.2d 143, 144 (D.C. 1984). Accord, Julius Garfinckel & Co. v. Firemen’s Insurance Co., 288 A.2d 662, 665 (D.C. 1972) (“gross negligence or willful misconduct”); Manhattan Co. v. Goldberg, 38 A.2d 172, 174 (D.C. 1944) (“a bailee may limit his liability except for gross negligence”). We recently considered such a clause contained in a home inspection contract and concluded that it would be sufficient to waive or limit liability for negligence. Carleton v. Winter, 901 A.2d 174, 181-82 (D.C. 2006). However, after surveying “leading authorities” and cases from other jurisdictions, we recognized that “courts have not generally enforced exculpatory clauses to the extent that they limited a party’s liability for gross negligence, recklessness or intentional torts.” Id. at 181. See also Wolf v. Ford, 335 Md. 525, 644 A.2d 522, 525 (Md. 1994) ( [HN1] “a party will not be permitted to excuse its liability for intentional harms or for the more extreme forms of negligence, i.e., reckless,  [**7] wanton, or gross”); Seigneur v. National Fitness Institute, Inc., 132 Md. App. 271, 752 A.2d 631, 638 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 2000) (exculpatory clause will not be enforced “when the party protected by the clause intentionally causes harm or engages in acts of reckless, wanton, or gross negligence”). In Carleton, the court remanded for further proceedings to determine whether the conduct of the defendants “was not just simple negligence, but rather gross negligence.” 901 A.2d at 182.

As Moore’s counsel conceded at oral argument, he does not claim that Waller intentionally or purposefully injured  [*180]  him. The complaint does allege reckless conduct, however, 2 and he argued to the trial court, as he does to us, that the fitness center could not exempt itself from liability for reckless or wanton behavior or gross negligence. Nevertheless, the defendants had moved for summary judgment, and  [HN2] “[m]ere conclusory allegations on the part of the non-moving party are insufficient to stave off the entry of summary judgment.” Musa v. Continental Insurance Co., 644 A.2d 999, 1002 (D.C. 1994); see also Super. Ct. Civ. R. 56 (e) (“the . . . response, by affidavits or as otherwise provided in this Rule, must set forth specific  [**8] facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial”). “‘[T]here is no issue for trial unless there is sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving party for a jury to return a verdict for that party.'” Brown v. George Washington Univ., 802 A.2d 382, 385 (D.C. 2002) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249-50, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986)). “‘The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence . . . will be insufficient; there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the [non-moving party].'” LaPrade v. Rosinsky, 882 A.2d 192, 196 (D.C. 2005) (quoting Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 252).

2 In his second amended complaint, Moore alleged that “defendant Waller recklessly disregarded [his] duty of due care [and] acted with deliberate indifference to the likelihood that his action would injure the plaintiff. Defendant Waller’s reckless action was the direct and proximate cause of plaintiff’s injuries.” He also alleged that the Grand Hyatt was responsible for Waller’s actions.

Nothing Moore presented in opposition to summary judgment would be sufficient to prove gross negligence or reckless conduct. Indeed, in one of his affidavits Mr. Moore stated that “as I was shown by defendant  [**9] Waller exactly how to hold the body bag while he demonstrated his kick(s), the purpose of his directions as communicated to me as to how to hold the bag were plainly for safety.” Such concern for safety is inconsistent with recklessness or gross negligence. See generally In re Romansky, 825 A.2d 311, 316 (D.C. 2003) (defining “recklessness”); District of Columbia v. Walker, 689 A.2d 40, 44 (D.C. 1997) (defining “gross negligence” for purposes of D.C. Code § 2-412 (2001) (formerly D.C.Code § 1-1212 (1981)). Moreover, Moore did not allege that defendant Waller kicked an unprotected portion of his body. Nor did he proffer expert testimony suggesting that the demonstration was so hazardous that it was reckless to undertake it, even with the protection of the Everlast body bag.

Because there is no viable claim for gross negligence, recklessness, or an intentional tort, we turn to the question of whether this particular contractual provision is sufficient to bar claims for negligence. 3 Although this is a suit for personal [*181]  injury, not merely for economic damage, the same principles of law apply. See Wright v. Sony Pictures Entertainment, Inc., 394 F. Supp. 2d 27, 34 (D.D.C. 2005) (“by voluntarily  [**10] signing the Contestant Release Form, plaintiff waived his right to bring any claims for negligently caused personal injury”; applying District of Columbia law). This court has not previously considered the effect of an exculpatory clause in a membership agreement with a health club or fitness center, but many jurisdictions have done so. After surveying the legal landscape, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals concluded that most courts hold “that  [HN3] health clubs, in their membership agreements, may limit their liability for future negligence if they do so unambiguously.” Seigneur, 752 A.2d at 636. We have found the analysis in Seigneur to be very helpful.

3 Appellant’s brief explains that he “claims damages from Waller based upon negligent infliction of injury, and against Square 345 Limited Partnership based upon respondeat superior and upon apparent agency and authority, as well as negligent failure to properly select, train and supervise a person whose services were retained to provide lessons in an activity which would certainly be dangerous if not expertly and responsibly performed.” He later elaborates: “While kick boxing is an inherently dangerous activity, had the demonstration  [**11] been conducted in a responsible, non-negligent way, it would not have been dangerous.” The words “strict liability” appear under the caption of the second amended complaint, but appellant has not cited any statute or regulation that purports to impose strict liability on demonstrations of kick boxing, nor has he alleged the common law elements of strict liability in tort. See Word v. Potomac Electric Power Co., 742 A.2d 452, 459 (D.C. 1999). Neither has he proffered facts which would support such a theory. In sum, the waiver is sufficient to cover any theory of liability which is supported by more than conclusory allegations.

 [HN4] A fundamental requirement of any exculpatory provision is that it be clear and unambiguous. Maiatico v. Hot Shoppes, Inc., 109 U.S. App. D.C. 310, 312, 287 F.2d 349, 351 (1961) (“exculpation must be spelled out with such clarity that the intent to negate the usual consequences of tortious conduct is made plain”; also recognizing that in most circumstances modern law “permit[s] a person to exculpate himself by contract from the legal consequences of his negligence”). Cf. Adloo v. H.T. Brown Real Estate, Inc., 344 Md. 254, 686 A.2d 298, 305 (Md. 1996) (“Because it does not clearly,  [**12] unequivocally, specifically, and unmistakably express the parties’ intention to exculpate the respondent from liability resulting from its own negligence, the clause is insufficient for that purpose.”). The provision at issue here meets the requirement of clarity. Article V is entitled, in capital letters, “WAIVER AND LIABILITY.” The Article ends with a prominent “box” containing a sentence typed in capital letters. Appellant Moore initialed that box, verifying that he had “carefully read this waiver and release and fully understands that it is a waiver and release of liability . . . .” By accepting the terms of membership, Moore “agree[d] to assume any and all liabilities associated with the personal injury, death, property loss or other damages which may result from or arise out of attendance at or use of the Club or participation in any of the Club’s programs or activities . . . .” He understood that this waiver of liability would “apply to any and all claims against the Club and/or its owners, shareholders, officers, directors, employees, agents or affiliates . . . for any . . . personal injuries . . . resulting from or arising out of any of [the] foregoing risks at the Club .  [**13] . . .” He “release[d] and discharge[d] the Club . . . from any and all claims, damages, demands, rights of action or causes of action…, including those which arise out of the negligence of the Club . . . .” This release is conspicuous and unambiguous, and it is clearly recognizable as a release from liability. Moreover, the injuries alleged here were reasonably within the contemplation of the parties. “Because  [HN5] the parties expressed a clear intention to release liability and because that release clearly included liability for negligence, that intention should be enforced.” Anderson v. McOskar Enterprises, Inc., 712 N.W.2d 796, 801 (Minn. Ct. App. 2006) (health and fitness club). 4

4 Because this waiver expressly refers to “claims . . . which arise out of the negligence of the Club,” its effect is clear. We have held, however, that it is not always necessary to use the word “negligence” in order to relieve a party of liability for such conduct. See Princemont Construction Corp. v. Baltimore & Ohio R.R. Co. 131 A.2d 877, 878 (D.C. 1957) (“the terms of an indemnity agreement may be so broad and comprehensive that although it contains no express stipulation indemnifying against a party’s  [**14] own negligence, it accomplishes the same purpose”); see also Avant v. Community Hospital, 826 N.E.2d 7, 12 (Ind. Ct. App. 2005)( [HN6] “an exculpatory clause need not include the word ‘negligence’ so long as it conveys the concept specifically and explicitly through other language”).

 [*182]  Appellant protests that the waiver provisions are so broad that they could be construed to exempt the Club from liability for harm caused by intentional torts or by reckless or grossly negligent conduct. Because such provisions are unenforceable, he argues that the entire release is invalid. We disagree. “‘A better interpretation of the law is that  [HN7] any “term” in a contract which attempts to exempt a party from liability for gross negligence or wanton conduct is unenforceable, not the entire [contract].'” Anderson, 712 N.W.2d at 801 (quoting Wolfgang v. Mid-American Motorsports, Inc., 898 F. Supp. 783, 788 (D. Kan. 1995) (which in turn quotes RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF CONTRACTS § 195(1) (1981) (“A term exempting a party from tort liability for harm caused intentionally or recklessly is unenforceable on grounds of public policy.” (emphasis added))). See Ellis v. James V. Hurson Associates, Inc., 565 A.2d 615, 617 (D.C. 1989)  [**15] (“The Restatement sets forth the relevant principles. Where less than all of an agreement is unenforceable on public policy grounds, a court may nevertheless enforce the rest of the agreement ‘in favor of a party who did not engage in serious misconduct.'” (quoting RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF CONTRACTS § 184(1) (1981))).

Nor is Article V (the waiver and release) unenforceable due to unequal bargaining power, as Mr. Moore asserts. We do not suppose that the parties in fact had equal power, but Moore does not meet the criteria for invalidating a contract on the grounds he invokes. He does not invite our attention to any evidence that he objected to the waiver provision or attempted to bargain for different terms. Nor has he shown that the contract involved a necessary service.

 [HN8] Even though a contract is on a printed form and offered on a “take it or leave it” basis, those facts alone do not cause it to be an adhesion contract. There must be a showing that the parties were greatly disparate in bargaining power, that there was no opportunity for negotiation and that the services could not be obtained elsewhere.

Schlobohm v. Spa Petite, Inc., 326 N.W.2d 920, 924-25 (Minn. 1982) (emphasis in  [**16] original). “Health clubs do not provide essential services[,]” Shields v. Sta-Fit, Inc., 79 Wn. App. 584, 903 P.2d 525, 528 (Wash. Ct. App. 1995), and “[t]he Washington metropolitan area . . . is home to many exercise and fitness clubs.” Seigneur, 752 A.2d at 639 (rejecting argument that patron’s bargaining position was grossly disproportionate to that of the fitness club).

We, of course, would not enforce such a release if doing so would be against public policy. See Godette v. Estate of Cox, 592 A.2d 1028, 1034 (D.C. 1991) ( [HN9] “An exculpatory clause [in a will] that excuses self-dealing [by the personal representative] or attempts to limit liability for breaches of duty committed in bad faith, intentionally, or with reckless indifference to the interest of the beneficiary, is generally considered to be against public policy.”); George Washington Univ. v. Weintraub, 458 A.2d 43, 47 (D.C. 1983) (exculpatory clause in lease was ineffective to waive tenants’ rights under implied warranty of habitability); see also Wolf v. Ford, 335 Md. 525, 644 A.2d 522, 526 (Md. 1994) (public policy will not permit exculpatory agreements in certain transactions affecting the performance of a public service obligation or “so important [*183]   [**17] to the public good that an exculpatory clause would be patently offensive”). However, we agree with the Maryland Court of Special Appeals and with numerous other courts which have held that it does not violate public policy to enforce exculpatory clauses contained in membership contracts of health clubs and fitness centers. Seigneur, 752 A.2d at 640-41 (and cases cited therein); see also, e.g., Schlobohm, 326 N.W.2d at 926 (“the exculpatory clause in the contract before us was not against the public interest”); Ciofalo v. Vic Tanney Gyms, Inc., 10 N.Y.2d 294, 177 N.E.2d 925, 927, 220 N.Y.S.2d 962 (N.Y. 1961) (“there is no special legal relationship and no overriding public interest which demand that this contract provision, voluntarily entered into by competent parties, should be rendered ineffectual”); Massengill v. S.M.A.R.T. Sports Medicine Clinic, P.C., 996 P.2d 1132 (Wyo. 2000). 5

5 The Supreme Court of Wisconsin refused to enforce one such clause on grounds of public policy. Atkins v. Swimwest Family Fitness Center, 2005 WI 4, 277 Wis. 2d 303, 691 N.W.2d 334 (Wis. 2005). That decision was based on several factors, however, and we do not understand the court to have announced a categorical rule. See id. at 340-42 (waiver was “overly broad  [**18] and all-inclusive,” the word “negligence” was not included, the provision was not “sufficiently highlight[ed],” and there was “no opportunity to bargain”).

The trial court properly held that “the waiver and release is valid and enforceable and is a complete defense for Grand Hyatt [and Mr. Waller] in this action.” The judgment of the Superior Court is hereby

Affirmed.

 


Federal Court in Texas upholds clause in release requiring plaintiff to pay defendants costs of defending against plaintiff’s claims.

Fitness contract included a release which included a clause stating the signor would pay the fitness companies defense costs. Court awarded those costs for defending against claims, which were dismissed by the court; Even though the plaintiff was successful in retaining two claims against the defendant.

McClure, et al., v. Life Time Fitness, Inc., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 167483

State: Texas

Plaintiff: Chase McClure, Misha McClure

Defendant: Life Time Fitness, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: negligence, gross negligence, common law and statutory premises liability, and negligent misrepresentation claims

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Plaintiff and the Defendant

Year: 2014

This is an interesting case, obviously because it is outside the normal outdoor recreation arena and involves a fitness center with a day care. The plaintiff signed up for the defendant fitness center. She arrived one time with her two-year-old son and informed the defendant fitness center employee that it was his first there. She informed the plaintiff that she would place her son in with the younger children.

Later, the plaintiff was told that her son had been injured and that 911 had been called. The facts surrounding the injury are vague, other than the plaintiff arrived to see a defendant day care worker holding ice on the child’s ear. The child later received five stitches in his ear.

There were several issues concerning the service of process on the defendant and eventually a removal to the Federal Court who resolved the issues finding ineffective service against the defendant in the state court claims.

The defendant then moved for summary judgment based on release and its counterclaims against the plaintiff for breach of the Member Usage Agreement.

Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.

The court first tackled the release and how whether it was effective against the claims of the plaintiff. Under Texas law, a release must satisfy the Fair Notice requirement.

Fair notice requires (1) that a party seeking to enforce a release provision comply with the express negligence doctrine and (2) that the provision be conspicuous. The express negligence doctrine requires a party releasing potential claims against another party for its negligence to express that intent in conspicuous and unambiguous terms in the four corners of the agreement. Conspicuousness requires the releasing language to be written and formatted so that a reasonable person in the position of the person against whom the release is to operate would notice it.

The plaintiff admitted the release met the fair notice requirements but under Texas law, the release could not stop her gross negligence claims. The court agreed.

Texas cases holding that waivers of negligence claims do not give fair notice of an intent to waive gross negligence claims, and the cases holding that preinjury releases of gross negligence claims are contrary to public policy, this court holds that the Member Usage Agreement Ms. McClure signed did not release Life Time Fitness from liability for her gross negligence claims, including the premise’s liability claim based on the Recreational Use Statute, which requires proof of gross negligence.

The court also found that the release failed to release the defendant from the plaintiff’s premises liability claims based on the Texas Recreational Use statute. Premise’s liability claims are based on ownership of the land; although the release in question seemed to cover the issue? No reasoning was given by the court for this decision.

The release did bar the plaintiff’s claims for “for negligence, negligent misrepresentation, and common law premise’s liability.”

The court next went over the issues surrounding whether a release under Texas law would stop claims of minors. The court found Texas law does not allow a release signed by a parent to stop those claims. “A preinjury release executed by a minor child’s parent is not enforceable to release claims against a commercial enterprise for the minor child’s injuries.”

The next issue was whether there was enough evidence to support any claims of the plaintiff. Here was a case where the plaintiff was never able to determine how the child was injured. Consequently, the plaintiff could not prove or provide any evidence of any negligence claims.

The McClures have not identified any evidence of a misrepresentation Life Time Fitness made to the child on which he did or could have reasonably relied. Summary judgment is granted on the child’s negligent misrepresentation claim.

The defendant then asked for the remaining claims of the child to be dismissed because there was no evidence to support any allegations made by the child to support his claims.

Life Time Fitness also seeks summary judgment on the child’s remaining claims, contending that it breached no duty owed to him and that no condition at the childcare facility posed an un-reasonable risk of harm.

The only evidence to support this claim was the plaintiff stated that any employee of the defendant had told the plaintiff here son had been injured in the play area designated for older children. This was sufficient to support this claim at this time. “Although the record is scant, it is sufficient to withstand summary judgment as to the child’s claims other than for negligent misrepresentation.”

The court then ruled on the counterclaim of the defendant. It seems like the motion was not answered by the plaintiff. The defendant then argued was a failure to deny, and they should be granted a default judgment. However, the court did not come to that same conclusion. The court then looked at the clause in the contract.

The clause in the release was entitled “Life Time’s Fees and Costs.”

This clause stated that if Ms. McClure asserted a negligence claim against Life Time Fitness, she would pay “all reasonable fees (including attorney’s fees), costs, and expenses incurred by Life Time (“Life Time’s Fees and Costs”) to defend (1) the Negligence Claim(s) and (2) all other Claims based on the same facts as the Negligence Claim(s).” Ms. McClure argues that she did not breach the Member Usage Agreement because she asserted claims for gross negligence.

Although the plaintiff was successful in two of her five claims, the court felt that she had breached the release and sued, therefore, the claims that were dismissed were enough to trigger fees and costs clause.

Life Time Fitness is entitled to the damages provided for in the Member Usage Agreement: the fees it reasonably incurred in defending solely against Ms. McClure’s claims for negligence, negligent misrepresentation, and common-law premises liability.

The court was specific in its ruling that the fees and costs to be paid by the plaintiff and awarded to the defendant were only the costs the defendant incurred in defending the three claims that were dismissed by the court.

Summary judgment is granted to Life Time Fitness on Ms. McClure’s claims for negligence, negligent misrepresentation, and common law premises liability to invitees. Summary judgment is denied on Ms. McClure’s claims for gross negligence and for premises liability under the Recreational Use Statute. Summary judgment is granted on the minor child’s negligent misrepresentation claim and otherwise denied. Life Time Fitness’s motion for summary judgment on its counterclaim is granted only for reasonable fees incurred in defending against Ms. McClure’s negligence, negligent misrepresentation, and common law premises liability claims, and is otherwise denied.

So the plaintiff was left with a gross negligence claim and a premises liability claim. Her son’s claim for negligent misrepresentation also survived, but barely.

So Now What?

Do Not Rely on this decision to believe that you can recover attorney fees when defending yourself in court when a release has been signed by the plaintiff. This is only the third time I have seen a case like this and there are 25 times more decisions denying these claims.

Most of these claims are struck down because the language is poor, and the case is similar to this forcing a parent to decide whether they should risk suing on behalf of their injured child. Other than this case, courts have uniformly denied those claims.

The two other cases I have found dealt with a skydiving where the plaintiff’s allegations were at a minimum quite wild and the other the plaintiff was an attorney. In both cases, it seemed the court found enough to hit the plaintiff with fees because the court did not like them.

You do not see any of the rancor or scorn in this case. It is a factual review of the facts, the release and a simple decision. You signed the agreement promising to pay if this happened, therefore, you must pay.

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Mcclure, et al., v. Life Time Fitness, Inc., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 167483

Mcclure, et al., v. Life Time Fitness, Inc., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 167483

C. Mcclure, et al., Plaintiffs, vs. Life Time Fitness, Inc., Defendant.

CIVIL ACTION NO. H-13-1794

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF TEXAS, HOUSTON DIVISION

2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 167483

December 3, 2014, Decided

December 3, 2014, Filed

PRIOR HISTORY: McClure v. Life Time Fitness, Inc., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 25810 (S.D. Tex., Feb. 28, 2014)

COUNSEL: [*1] For Chase McClure, Misha McClure, Individually and as Guardian of Chase McClure, Plaintiffs: Brennen Dunn, LEAD ATTORNEY, Citizen Legal, PLLC, Houston, TX.

For Life Time Fitness, Inc., Defendant: John G Browning, Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP, Dallas, TX.

JUDGES: Lee H. Rosenthal, United States District Judge.

OPINION BY: Lee H. Rosenthal

OPINION

MEMORANDUM AND OPINION

This is a personal injury suit filed by Misha McClure for herself and on behalf of her minor son, who was injured in July 2012 in the childcare area at a Life Time Fitness center in Humble, Texas. Ms. McClure asserted negligence, gross negligence, common law and statutory premises liability, and negligent misrepresentation claims. Life Time Fitness moved for summary judgment, arguing that the claims are barred by a release Ms. McClure signed when she joined the center. (Docket Entry No. 28).

Based on the pleadings, the motion and response, the parties’ submissions, and the applicable law, this court grants the motion in part and denies it in part. Specifically, the court grants Life Time Fitness’s motion for summary judgment dismissing Ms. McClure’s claims for negligence, common-law premises liability, and negligent misrepresentation, and denies [*2] the motion as to her gross negligence and statutory premises liability claims. The court grants Life Time Fitness’s summary judgment motion as to the minor child’s negligent misrepresentation claim and otherwise denies the motion. Finally, the court grants Life Time Fitness’s motion for summary judgment on its counterclaim for fees incurred in defending against Ms. McClure’s claims other than for gross negligence and for statutory premises liability, and otherwise denies the motion. The reasons for these rulings are explained below.

I. Background

Ms. McClure went to the Life Time Fitness center in Humble on July 28, 2012 for a personal-training session. She left her two-year-old son at the childcare area in the center, telling a childcare employee her son’s age and explaining that it was his first time there. The employee told Ms. McClure that her son would be in an area for younger children. Thirty minutes later, a Life Time Fitness manager interrupted Ms. McClure’s training session to tell her that her son had been in an accident in the older children’s play area and that 911 had been called. Ms. McClure found her son with a Life Time Fitness childcare manager who was holding an ice [*3] pack on the child’s ear. When the ice pack was removed, Ms. McClure saw that the child was missing a piece of his ear. He received five stitches.

When Ms. McClure joined Life Time Fitness, she signed a Member Usage Agreement. The Member Usage Agreement contained sections headed “ASSUMPTION OF RISK” and “WAIVER OF LIABILITY.” The relevant parts read as follows:

ASSUMPTION OF RISK. I understand that there are inherent dangers, hazards, and risks of injury or damage in the use of Life Time’s premises, facilities, equipment, services, activities or products, whether available through membership dues or a separate fee.

I understand that the Risk and Injuries in the Use of Life Time Premises and Services (collectively, “Risks of Injury”) may be caused, in whole or in part, by the NEGLIGENCE OF LIFE TIME, me, Minor Member(s), Other Member(s), Guest(s) and/or other persons. [I] FULLY UNDERSTAND, AND VOLUNTARILY AND WILLINGLY ASSUME, THE RISKS OF INJURY.

WAIVER OF LIABILITY. On behalf of myself and my spouse/partner, children/Minor Members, Other Members, Guests, parents, guardians, heirs, next of kin, personal representatives, heirs and assigns, I hereby voluntarily and forever release and discharge [*4] Life Time from, covenant and agree not to sue Life Time for, and waive, any claims, demands, actions, causes of action, debts, damages, losses, costs, fees, expenses or any other alleged liabilities or obligations of any kind or nature, whether known or unknown (collectively, “Claims”) for any Injuries to me, Minor Member(s), Other Member(s), or Guest(s) in the Use of Life Time Premises and Services which arise out of, result from, or are caused by any NEGLIGENCE OF LIFE TIME, me, any Minor Member(s), any Other Member(s), any Guest(s), and/or any other person . . . (collectively, “Negligence Claims”).

A. Negligence Claims. I understand that Negligence Claims include but are not limited to Life Time’s (1) negligent design, construction (including renovation and alteration), repair maintenance, operation, supervision, monitoring, or provision of Life Time Premises and Services; (2) negligent failure to warn of or remove a hazardous, unsafe, dangerous or defective condition; (3) negligent failure to provide or keep premises in a reasonably safe condition; (4) negligent provision or failure to provide emergency care; (5) negligent provision of services; and (6) negligent hiring, selection, [*5] training, instruction, certification, supervision or retention of employees, independent contractors or volunteers; or (7) other negligent act(s) or omission(s).

B. Life Time’s Fees and Costs. I specifically agree that, if I (on my own behalf or on behalf of another, including an estate) assert a Negligence Claim against Life Time and/or breach my agreement not to sue Life Time, I will pay all reasonable fees (including attorneys’ fees), costs and expenses incurred by Life Time (“Life Time’s Fees and Costs”) to defend (1) the Negligence Claim(s) and (2) all other Claims based on the same facts as the Negligence Claim(s).

The agreement also contained a section headed “PARENT OR GUARDIAN AGREEMENT.” This section stated:

If I am the parent or legal guardian of a Minor Member, I acknowledge and represent to Life Time that I have the right and authority to make decisions concerning the care, custody and control of each Minor Member, including but not limited to the right and authority to execute this MUA on the Minor Member’s behalf. By signing this MUA, I am binding each of my Minor Member(s) to its terms, including but not limited to the ASSUMPTION OF RISK [and] WAIVER OF LIABILITY . . . [*6] provisions.

The following text appeared directly above the signature line:

I HAVE READ, UNDERSTOOD, RECEIVED A COPY OF, AND AGREE TO ALL TERMS AND CONDITIONS OF THIS MUA, INCLUDING SPECIFICALLY THE ASSUMPTION OF RISK, WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND DEFENSE AND INDEMNIFICATION PROVISIONS UNDER WHICH I AM RELINQUISHING LEGAL RIGHTS.

Ms. McClure’s state-court petition alleged that Life Time Fitness negligently allowed her son to play in an area designated for older children. The petition alleged that in addition to the ear injury, which was treated with five stitches, the incident left him unable or unwilling to participate in certain activities and afraid to be in a new childcare facility. (Docket Entry No. 1, Ex. 2 at 2). Life Time Fitness did not file an answer within the period set by the Texas rules.

In April 2013, the state-court judge granted the McClures’ motion for a no-answer default judgment against Life Time Fitness. Life Time Fitness removed the lawsuit to federal court in June 2013 and challenged the service of process and the no-answer default judgment. This court vacated the state-court default judgment in February 2014, finding that the service was defective and that entry of the [*7] no-answer default judgment was therefore void. Life Time Fitness then filed an answer and counterclaimed against Ms. McClure for breach of the Member Usage Agreement. (Docket Entry No. 21).

Life Time Fitness has moved for summary judgment, contending that the McClures’ claims are barred by the release contained in the Member Usage Agreement and are unsupported by the evidence. Life Time Fitness also moved for summary judgment on its breach-of-contract counterclaim against Ms. McClure. Ms. McClure contends that the release does not bar her claims, that the summary-judgment evidence supports recovery for both her and her son, and that she did not breach the Member Usage Agreement. Each argument and response is analyzed below.

II. The Applicable Legal Standards

A. Summary Judgment

[HN1] Summary judgment is appropriate if no genuine issue of material fact exists and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). [HN2] “The movant bears the burden of identifying those portions of the record it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Triple Tee Golf, Inc. v. Nike, Inc., 485 F.3d 253, 261 (5th Cir. 2007) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-25, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986)).

[HN3] If the burden of proof at trial lies with the nonmoving party, the movant may satisfy its initial burden by “‘showing’ [*8] — that is, pointing out to the district court — that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party’s case.” See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325. While the party moving for summary judgment must demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, it does not need to negate the elements of the nonmovant’s case. Boudreaux v. Swift Transp. Co., 402 F.3d 536, 540 (5th Cir. 2005) (citation omitted). “A fact is ‘material’ if its resolution in favor of one party might affect the outcome of the lawsuit under governing law.” Sossamon v. Lone Star State of Tex., 560 F.3d 316, 326 (5th Cir. 2009) (quotation omitted). “If the moving party fails to meet [its] initial burden, the motion [for summary judgment] must be denied, regardless of the nonmovant’s response.” United States v. $92,203.00 in U.S. Currency, 537 F.3d 504, 507 (5th Cir. 2008) (quoting Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994) (en banc)).

[HN4] When the moving party has met its Rule 56(c) burden, the nonmoving party cannot survive a summary judgment motion by resting on the mere allegations of its pleadings. The nonmovant must identify specific evidence in the record and articulate how that evidence supports that party’s claim. Baranowski v. Hart, 486 F.3d 112, 119 (5th Cir. 2007). “This burden will not be satisfied by ‘some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts, by conclusory allegations, by unsubstantiated assertions, or by only a scintilla of evidence.'” Boudreaux, 402 F.3d at 540 (quoting Little, 37 F.3d at 1075). In deciding a summary judgment motion, the court draws all reasonable inferences [*9] in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Connors v. Graves, 538 F.3d 373, 376 (5th Cir. 2008).

III. Analysis

A. The Timeliness of the McClures’ Response to Life Time Fitness’s Summary Judgment Motion

Life Time Fitness argues that the court should disregard the McClures’ response to the summary judgment motion because it was filed after the deadline to respond and without leave of court. (Docket Entry No. 30 at 2). The summary judgment motion was filed on September 12, 2014. (Docket Entry No. 28). The response was filed on October 13, 2014, ten days after it was due. (Docket Entry No. 29). Because the delay was not extensive, there is no prejudice to Life Time Fitness. Because [HN5] a decision on the basis of default is disfavored, the court considers the McClures’ response on the merits.

B. The Waiver and Release

The waiver and release contained in the Member Usage Agreement stated that the signer waived any claims for injuries to herself or to her minor children resulting from Life Time Fitness’s negligence. (Docket Entry No. 28). [HN6] Texas imposes a fair notice requirement on preinjury releases. See Dresser Indus., Inc. v. Page Petroleum, Inc., 853 S.W.2d 505, 508-09 (Tex. 1993). A release that fails to satisfy the fair notice requirement is unenforceable as a matter of law. Storage & Processors, Inc. v. Reyes, 134 S.W.3d 190, 192 (Tex. 2004). Fair notice requires (1) that a party [*10] seeking to enforce a release provision comply with the express negligence doctrine and (2) that the provision be conspicuous. Id. The express negligence doctrine requires a party releasing potential claims against another party for its negligence to express that intent in conspicuous and unambiguous terms in the four corners of the agreement. Id. Conspicuousness requires the releasing language to be written and formatted so that a reasonable person in the position of the person against whom the release is to operate would notice it. Id.; Dresser, 853 S.W.2d at 508.

Ms. McClure agrees that the waiver and release provisions of the Member Usage Agreement meet the Texas fair notice requirements, but argues that the provisions do not cover her gross negligence claims. (Docket Entry No. 29 at 2). [HN7] Several Texas appellate courts have held that preinjury releases of gross negligence claims violate public policy. See Van Voris v. Team Chop Shop, LLC, 402 S.W.3d 915, 924-25 (Tex. App. — Dallas 2013, no pet.); Sydlik v. REEIII, Inc., 195 S.W.3d 329, 336 (Tex. App. — Houston [14th Dist.] 2006, no writ); Smith v. Golden Triangle Raceway, 708 S.W.2d 574, 576 (Tex. App. — Beaumont 1986, no writ); accord Memorial Med. Ctr. of East Texas v. Keszler, M.D., 943 S.W.2d 433 (Tex. 1997) (citing Golden Triangle Raceway, 708 S.W.2d at 576). Other Texas appellate courts have held that when a preinjury waiver releases claims for “negligence,” claims for gross negligence are not waived. See Del Carmen Canas v. Centerpoint Energy Res. Corp., 418 S.W.3d 312, 326-27 (Tex. App. — Houston [14th Dist.] 2013, no pet.); [*11] Akin v. Bally Total Fitness Corp., No. 10-05-00280-CV, 2007 Tex. App. LEXIS 1218, 2007 WL 475406, at *3 (Tex. App. — Waco Feb. 14, 2007, pet. denied); Rosen v. Nat’l Hot Rod Ass’n, No. 14-94-00775-CV, 1995 Tex. App. LEXIS 3225, 1995 WL 755712, at *7 n. 1 (Tex. App. — Houston [14th Dist.] Dec. 21, 1995, writ denied). In Newman v. Tropical Visions, Inc., the Texas Court of Appeals for San Antonio held to the contrary, finding that the plaintiff’s preinjury waiver of negligence claims also barred its gross negligence claims. Newman v. Tropical Visions, Inc., 891 S.W.2d 713, 722 (Tex. App. — San Antonio 1994, writ denied); see also Tesoro Petroleum Corp. v. Nabors Drilling USA, Inc., 106 S.W.3d 118, 127 (Tex. App. — Houston [1st Dist.] 2002, pet. denied) (finding Newman persuasive). The court noted that the plaintiff had not raised the express negligence rule in its pleadings, and the court emphasized that its opinion did not address or take a position on whether a preinjury waiver of gross negligence claims violated public policy. Id.

The Texas Supreme Court has not ruled on this issue. The guidance the Texas appellate court case law provides, however, gives a reliable basis for making an Erie prediction about how the Supreme Court would rule if faced with the question. [HN8] “When making an Erie-guess in the absence of explicit guidance from the state courts, [this court] must attempt to predict state law, not to create or modify it.” Assoc. Inter. Ins. Co. v. Blythe, 286 F.3d 780, 783 (5th Cir. 2002) (citation omitted). Based on the [HN9] Texas cases holding that waivers [*12] of negligence claims do not give fair notice of an intent to waive gross negligence claims, and the cases holding that preinjury releases of gross negligence claims are contrary to public policy, this court holds that the Member Usage Agreement Ms. McClure signed did not release Life Time Fitness from liability for her gross negligence claims, including [HN10] the premises liability claim based on the Recreational Use Statute, which requires proof of gross negligence. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code §§ 75.002(c)-(d), 101.058; State v. Shumake, 199 S.W.3d 279, 289 (Tex. 2006).

By contrast, Ms. McClure’s claims for negligence, negligent misrepresentation, and common law premises liability to invitees fall within the scope of the waiver and release. Summary judgment is granted on these claims but denied as to Ms. McClure’s gross negligence and statutory premises liability claims.

Life Time Fitness also argued that the child’s claims were barred by the waiver and release Ms. McClure signed. [HN11] A preinjury release executed by a minor child’s parent is not enforceable to release claims against a commercial enterprise for the minor child’s injuries. See Paz v. Life Time Fitness, Inc., 757 F. Supp. 2d 658 (S.D. Tex. 2010) (making an Erie prediction); Munoz v. II Jaz Inc., 863 S.W.2d 207 (Tex. App. — Houston [14th Dist.] 1993, no writ). The child’s claims are not barred on this [*13] basis.

B. The Sufficiency of the Evidence

Life Time Fitness also moves for summary judgment on the basis that there is no evidence to support either Ms. McClure’s or her child’s claims.

Life Time Fitness contends that the child, who was two years old at the time, was too young to rely on any statement made by Life Time Fitness and therefore cannot prevail on a negligent misrepresentation claim. (Docket Entry No. 23). In response, Ms. McClure argues that her own reliance should be imputed to her son. (Docket Entry No. 29 at 4-5). [HN12] Although one party’s knowledge of a misrepresentation may be imputed to another under certain circumstances, none of which are present here, Texas courts do not recognize a theory of imputed or vicarious reliance. Grant Thornton LLP v. Prospect High Income Fund, 314 S.W.3d 913, 924 (Tex. 2010) (in the context of an agency relationship). The McClures have not identified any evidence of a misrepresentation Life Time Fitness made to the child on which he did or could have reasonably relied. Summary judgment is granted on the child’s negligent misrepresentation claim.

Life Time Fitness also seeks summary judgment on the child’s remaining claims, contending that it breached no duty owed to him and that no condition at the childcare facility posed [*14] an unreasonable risk of harm. The McClures did not specifically respond to the motion for summary judgment on these claims. (Docket Entry No. 29). In their pleadings, the McClures alleged that Life Time Fitness failed to provide a safe childcare area. (Docket Entry No. 23). The summary judgment evidence in the record is Ms. McClure’s affidavit and the Member Usage Agreement she signed. In her affidavit, Ms. McClure states that there was an injury involving her son and she was told by an unnamed employee that he was injured in a play area designated for children above his age. (Docket Entry No. 29, Ex. 2). Although the record is scant, it is sufficient to withstand summary judgment as to the child’s claims other than for negligent misrepresentation.

C. Life Time Fitness’s Counterclaims

Life Time Fitness moves for summary judgment on its breach-of-contract counterclaim against Ms. McClure. Life Time Fitness first argues that because Ms. McClure answered with only a general denial, the counterclaim allegations should be deemed admitted. (Docket Entry No. 28 at 8). [HN13] “General denials are uncommon in federal court because ‘situations in which the complaint can be completely controverted are [*15] quite rare.'” Mary Kay, Inc. v. Dunlap, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 86499, 2012 WL 2358082, at *7 (N.D. Tex. June 21, 2012) (quoting 5 Wright & Miller § 1265, at 549). Life Time Fitness argues that by filing a general denial, Ms. McClure was “admitting the operative facts” of the counterclaim. Life Time Fitness seeks summary judgment on this basis.

[HN14] “As directed by Rule 8 [of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure], the answer should contain only two things: (1) a response (admitting, denying, or claiming insufficient knowledge) to the averments in the complaint; and (2) a statement of all affirmative defenses.” Software Publishers Ass’n v. Scott & Scott, LLP, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 59814, 2007 WL 2325585, at *2 n. 4 (N.D. Tex. Aug.15, 2007) (citing Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(b)-(c)). “A party that intends in good faith to deny all the allegations of a pleadings — including the jurisdictional grounds — may do so by a general denial.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(b)(3). “A party that does not intend to deny all the allegations must either specifically deny designated allegations or generally deny all except those specifically admitted.” Id.

[HN15] “Granting summary judgment when a party fails to respond to the opposing party’s summary judgment motion is comparable to granting a default judgment.” Tolliver v. Liberty Mut. Fire Ins. Co., No. 2:06-0904, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 18839, 2008 WL 545018, at *1 (S.D. Ohio Feb. 25, 2008). “‘A party is not entitled to a default judgment as a matter of right, even where the defendant is technically [*16] in default.'” McCarty v. Zapata County, 243 F. App’x 792, 794 (5th Cir. 2007) (per curiam) (quoting Lewis v. Lynn, 236 F.3d 766, 767 (5th Cir. 2001)). Default judgment is a drastic remedy that should be granted only in extreme situations. Warren v. Johnson, 244 F. App’x 570, 571 (5th Cir. 2007) (per curiam) (citing Lewis, 236 F.3d at 767). Life Time Fitness has not shown such an extreme situation. Life Time Fitness’s motion for summary judgment on its counterclaim will be considered on the merits.

The Member Usage Agreement Ms. McClure signed when she joined Life Time Fitness contained a clause headed “Life Time’s Fees and Costs.” This clause stated that if Ms. McClure asserted a negligence claim against Life Time Fitness, she would pay “all reasonable fees (including attorney’s fees), costs, and expenses incurred by Life Time (“Life Time’s Fees and Costs”) to defend (1) the Negligence Claim(s) and (2) all other Claims based on the same facts as the Negligence Claim(s).” Ms. McClure argues that she did not breach the Member Usage Agreement because she asserted claims for gross negligence.

As discussed above, although Ms. McClure’s claims for gross negligence and premises liability under the Recreational Use Statute are not barred by the waiver and release, her remaining claims are barred. Ms. McClure asserted claims against Life Time Fitness for negligence, negligent misrepresentation, [*17] and common law premises liability to invitees, despite agreeing that she would not do so. Life Time Fitness is entitled to the damages provided for in the Member Usage Agreement: the fees it reasonably incurred in defending solely against Ms. McClure’s claims for negligence, negligent misrepresentation, and common-law premises liability. Life Time Fitness is not entitled to any fees incurred in defending against the child’s claims, which were not waived by the Member Use Agreement. Nor is Life Time Fitness entitled to any fees incurred to defend against Ms. McClure’s claims for gross negligence and for statutory premises liability. The only fees at issue are those that Life Time Fitness would have incurred had Ms. McClure asserted only the claims waived by the release.

IV. Conclusion

Summary judgment is granted to Life Time Fitness on Ms. McClure’s claims for negligence, negligent misrepresentation, and common law premises liability to invitees. Summary judgment is denied on Ms. McClure’s claims for gross negligence and for premises liability under the Recreational Use Statute. Summary judgment is granted on the minor child’s negligent misrepresentation claim and otherwise denied. Life [*18] Time Fitness’s motion for summary judgment on its counterclaim is granted only for reasonable fees incurred in defending against Ms. McClure’s negligence, negligent misrepresentation, and common law premises liability claims, and is otherwise denied.

SIGNED on December 3, 2014, at Houston, Texas.

/s/ Lee H. Rosenthal

Lee H. Rosenthal

United States District Judge


Wisconsin decision has left the status of release law in Wisconsin in jeopardy. Decision also brought in new defenses to releases in the state

This decision worked hard to defeat not only this release, but all releases in Wisconsin, even though the dissent laid out great arguments why the majority’s decision was not based on any business principle. Even a concurring opinion thought the majority decision was too broad.

Atkins v. Swimwest Family Fitness Center, 2005 WI 4; 2005 Wisc. LEXIS 2

Date of the Decision: January 19, 2005

Plaintiff: Benjamin Atkins, a minor, as the only surviving child of Charis Wilson, deceased, by Alexander Kammer, guardian ad litem

Defendant: Swimwest Family Fitness Center a/k/a Swimwest School of Instruction, Inc., Karen Kittelson, and West Bend Mutual Insurance Company

Plaintiff Claims:

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: for the Plaintiff

In this decision, the Wisconsin Supreme Court set release law back in the state. The decision, Atkins v. Swimwest violated a release on numerous grounds that would not hold up in other states. In a decision that may invalidate all releases in Wisconsin, the Court ruled that a release used by a swim club in conjunction with the registration statement was invalid as against public policy.

The plaintiff was the only surviving heir of the deceased and a minor. Consequently, the plaintiff was represented by a guardian ad litem. This is a person appointed by the court to represent the minor. The guardian ad litem may or may not be an attorney.

The decedent went to the defendant’s swimming pool for physical therapy. She entered the pool that day and was observed swimming a sidestroke up and down the length of the pool. Soon thereafter she was observed at the bottom of the pool. She was rescued, and CPR was started. She was transported to a hospital where she died the next day.

The decedent was not a member of the swim club, so she was required to sign a guest registration/release form. The form was titled “Guest Registration.” The form was a five 1/2 inch by five 1/2 inch card with release language that the court characterized as standardized. The card also required written personal information. The waiver information was below the registration information. The waiver language was:

I agree to assume all liability for myself without regard to fault, while at Swimwest Family Fitness Center. I further agree to hold harmless Swimwest Fitness Center, or any of its employees for any conditions or injury that may result to myself while at the Swimwest Fitness Center. I have read the foregoing and understand its contents.

The trial court dismissed the case based on the release. The appellate court certified the case to the Supreme Court of Wisconsin. Certified means they passed the case on up without a decision.

Summary of the case

The court first had a problem with the term fault. The term was described as overly broad. The court explained the term was not defined enough to indicate to the parties (the deceased) the exact legal claims that would be barred by the release. The court found the term fault could also cover intentional acts which the court specifically stated would violate public policy and consequently, void the release.

The court stated, “We have consistently held that “only if it is apparent that the parties, in light of all the circumstances, knowingly agreed to excuse the defendants from liability will the contract be enforceable.” From this, statement appears the court wants the specific possible risks to be enumerated; however, that is an impossible job for most recreational activities.

The Supreme Court then looked at the Public Policy issues. The court called the public policy test a balancing test. The court required a balancing of the needs of the parties to contract versus the needs of the community to protect its members. No other court has balanced the issue of a release for a recreational activity this way. No other decision has surmised that the needs of the community include protecting individual members from freedom to contract. The court did not even consider the issue that the purpose of swimming by the decedent was for medical care: her physical therapy which might have had some public policy basis.

The court examined the release’s language in a two-step process. “First, the waiver must clearly, unambiguously, and unmistakably inform the signer of what is being waived.  Second, the form, looked at in its entirety, must alert the signer to the nature and significance of what is being signed.” The court stated the release served two purposes: (1) as a sign-in sheet for the facility and (2) as a release and therefore, did not meet the test they created.

In another statement the court stated, there was nothing conspicuous about the release language in the form. While other courts across the nation have continuously berated release writers about hiding the release language, wanting them to make sure the language was not hidden. Here the court goes one step further and wants the release language to be quite apparent and pointed out to the reader.

In one of the wildest statements in a court decision, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin stated that the decedent did not contemplate drowning.

…Wilson likely would not have contemplated drowning in a four-foot deep pool with a lifeguard on duty, when she signed the guest registration and waiver form. The question is not whether swimming carries with it the risk of drowning, but rather whether Wilson, herself, likely contemplated that risk.

Although you might look at slipping on the wet deck or stubbing your toe as you entered the water, what other possible risks exist in swimming other than drowning?

The next major blow to releases in general was the bargaining argument. The court stated the release was void because there was no opportunity for the decedent to bargain over the release language.

We also conclude that there was no opportunity for Wilson to bargain over the exculpatory language in the guest registration and waiver form.

We held that an exculpatory clause would not be enforced when it is part of a standardized agreement that offers little or no opportunity to bargain.

The term bargain means the court wants possible signors of releases to be able to negotiate the exculpatory language out of the release. As argued by the dissent, (judge who disagrees with the majority opinion) this would require every firm to hire an attorney to negotiate each release with each patron. As a condition of insurance, most providers of recreational insurance and/or health club insurances are requiring that every participant sign a release. If a participant does not sign a release and the release is a policy condition, there will be no insurance available to defend a claim.

Even if you could purchase insurance without using a release, at what cost would not having a release be worth? Based on two cases that have occurred, the person who is injured is the person who did not sign the release. So the cost of not have a patron sign a release is equal to their possible claims. If you want to join the health club and sign a release the cost is $79.00 per month with a $100 membership fee. If you want to join without signing a release, the cost is $89.00 a month with a $5 million-dollar membership fee.

The failure bargain to remove the release language was a violation of public policy. How? The court does not enumerate, nor do the concurrence and the dissent provide much additional information; however, both the concurrence and the dissent recognize the fallacy of the bargain requirement.

In the one point of illumination, court summed up their decision in the last paragraph:

In summary, we conclude that the exculpatory language in Swimwest’s form is unenforceable, since it is contrary to public policy. The waiver of liability language is, first, overly broad and all-inclusive. The use of the word “fault” on the form did not make clear to Wilson that she was releasing others from intentional, as well as negligent, acts. Second, the form served two purposes, guest registration and waiver of liability for “fault,” and thus failed to highlight the waiver, making it uncertain whether Wilson was fully notified about the nature and significance of the document she signed. Finally, Wilson did not have any opportunity to bargain. If she had decided not to sign the guest registration and waiver form, she would not have been allowed to swim.  The lack of such opportunity is also contrary to public policy. Accordingly, we reverse and remand, concluding also that Atkins is entitled to pursue his wrongful death claim.

The dissent is a well-thought-out argument about what is good and bad about the release and what is very bad about the majority’s opinion; however, the dissent, a minority of one, has no real value.

So Now What?

The solution to this issue is to use the word negligence. Negligence has a specific legal definition and specifically/legally defines the parameter of the release. The only specific statement from the decision that could be considered directional in writing releases was the statement that the word release should have been used in the form.

Why not? Why risk having your release thrown out because you failed to put in one additional sentence.

The next problem was the release was part of a registration form. The court included this as a reason the release did not meet its public policy test. This problem would have been resolved if the release was on a separate sheet of paper and clearly marked with a heading and/or notice above the signature line that the document was a release.

The court then went on in this vein and stated the exculpatory language in the release should have been highlighted or been more visible to someone signing the release.

From this decision, in Wisconsin you must!

1.                  Your release must be on a separate and distinct piece of paper.

2.                You release must be identified and clearly state it is a release.

3.                The release must use the magic word “negligence” to be valid.

4.                You need to list all of the possible injuries or risks that can befall the signor of the release.

5.                 Your release must be read by the parties and there should be a notice in the release that the signor read, understood and signed the release with the intention to give up their right to sue for injuries or death.

If you can, you should see if you can provide:

6.                The opportunity for your patron to buy their way out of the release.

7.                 References to other competitors where a guest may be able to go to have a similar opportunity without signing a release.

8.                8.  Make sure your insurance is up to date and adequate for the value of your business and your risk.

Always in any business.

9.                Make sure your corporate records are up to date. If you are not incorporated or an LLC get incorporated now!

10.            10.         Look into separating assets from operations in separate corporations or LLC’s and divide your business into separate, smaller entities to protect the business.

11.              11. Look into asset protection planning for your personal assets.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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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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