McCoy v. PFWA Lacey, LLC, dba Planet Fitness,
Carol J. McCoy, a single person, Respondent,
PFWA Lacey, LLC, a Washington limited company, dba Planet Fitness, Petitioner,
BRUNSWICK CORPORATION, a foreign corporation, Defendant.
Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 2
May 11, 2021
Carol McCoy brought suit against Planet Fitness-Lacey for negligence after she was injured using a fitness machine. Planet Fitness filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that McCoy was precluded from bringing suit because she signed a membership agreement that contained a liability waiver provision.[ 1] McCoy argued that the waiver was inconspicuous and that she was not given an opportunity to read the membership agreement.
The court denied Planet Fitness’s motion, determining that material issues of fact remained regarding whether McCoy unwittingly signed the waiver provision because it was inconspicuous. Planet Fitness appeals. We reverse the order denying summary judgment because the waiver provision was conspicuous and McCoy did not demonstrate an issue of material fact bearing on whether she was provided an opportunity to read the membership agreement.
On February 1, 2016, McCoy entered into a membership agreement at Planet Fitness in Lacey. The first page of the two-page membership agreement begins with a section covering personal information, membership rate, and financial terms of the membership. The final sentence of this section states, “Cancellation & Billing Policies: I have read and understand the cancellation rights and billing policies on the front and back of this agreement,” followed by McCoy’s signature/initials. Clerk’s Papers (CP) at 25. Below McCoy’s signature/initials is a large box marked “PAYMENT AUTHORIZATION” with McCoy’s bank account information, and her signature after the paragraph authorizing a monthly membership fee payment.
The waiver provision is found below the payment authorization box, a little more than halfway down the first page of the agreement. Image Omitted
Below a dark line is a banner containing the bolded, capitalized words “RELEASE OF LIABILITY,” “ASSUMPTION OF RISK,” “CLUB RULES,” and “BUYER’S NOTICE & RIGHT TO CANCEL.” CP at 25. Directly below that banner is a paragraph in the same small sized font as the majority of the agreement that enumerates the waiver of legal rights. The waiver provision states that certain risks are inherent in physical activity and that the signer understands and voluntarily accepts responsibility for risk of injury or loss arising from the use of Planet Fitness facilities. It goes on to state twice that the member agrees that Planet Fitness is not liable for injury resulting from negligent conduct or omission of Planet Fitness or anyone acting on its behalf. The second paragraph of the waiver provision reads: I understand that I am not obligated to sign this agreement and should not do so if there are any unfilled blanks. I understand my right of cancellation and the billing and refund policies. I understand my release of liability, assumption of risk and agreement to indemnify, defend and hold harmless and I have been given the opportunity to review and ask questions related to my use of facilities . . . and other equipment. . . . I agree to comply with Planet Fitness’ membership policies and club rules. . . . Planet fitness may, in its sole discretion, modify any policy or club rule at any time and from time to time without advance notice. Planet Fitness reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to refund the pro-rated cost of unused services. . . . By signing below, I acknowledge and agree to all of the terms contained on the front and back of this agreement.
CP at 25.
McCoy’s signature appears immediately below this paragraph, next to a Planet Fitness authorized signature.
Bold, capital letters at the bottom of the first page and underneath the signature line discuss the nonrefundable initiation fee, then an acknowledgement of receipt of a written description of the health studio services and equipment and a complete copy of the rules on separate lines, followed by lines for initials. Finally, the page details, again in bold capital letters, the process for cancellation of the membership agreement. The second page of the agreement has a large bold heading that reads “PLEASE READ AND UNDERSTAND THIS AGREEMENT BEFORE SIGNING.” CP at 26. The remaining language of the contract is immaterial to this appeal.
In July 2016, McCoy fell from a stair stepper machine at Planet Fitness. She alleged that the emergency stop button failed to stop the machine, causing her injury. In January 2019, McCoy filed an amended complaint, naming Planet Fitness and the manufacturer of the machine, the Brunswick Corporation, [ 2] as defendants. She alleged claims of negligence and failure to provide a safe product.
Planet Fitness filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing in part that McCoy had signed an enforceable liability waiver. In support of its motion, it provided a copy of the membership agreement as well as excerpts from a transcript of McCoy’s deposition testimony. In her deposition, when shown the membership agreement, McCoy stated that she did not remember seeing the membership agreement before and that she did not remember signing it.
McCoy responded to the motion, arguing that the waiver provision in the membership agreement was inconspicuous and ambiguous, and because McCoy was not given an opportunity to read or review the agreement, it was unwittingly signed. In a supporting declaration, McCoy recalled the day she signed the membership agreement: 3.I was there for a short time, and I spoke to a person who appeared to be the manager, or at least was working behind the desk, who presented me with some documents to sign. He identified these documents as mere formalities and that I had to sign them in order to join the club. He showed me where to sign on a couple documents and I signed them, but I was not given an opportunity to read all the language, and when I mentioned that, he told me he would send me copies of these documents in the mail to my home address. He never did. 4.What little I could see of the documents was in very fine, small print which I could not read, at least on one of the documents, and the first time I saw the documents was at my deposition. I did not have time to read them at my deposition and I would have had difficulty anyway because the print was so small. . . . . As I said, the only direction I got from the person who was working behind the counter was to “sign here” and I did. He immediately took the documents back and told me that he would mail them to me, but I never received copies in the mail so I never really had an opportunity to review them before the incident occurred, or any time afterwards.
CP at 140-41.
In reply, Planet Fitness argued that the waiver provision was conspicuous under Washington law, and provided a screen shot of an undated e-mail from Planet Fitness to McCoy with a copy of McCoy’s signed membership agreement attached.
The court denied Planet Fitness’s motion for summary judgment. Planet Fitness filed a motion for reconsideration, which the court also denied. We granted Planet Fitness’s motion for discretionary review.
I. Standard of Review
Summary judgment is appropriate where there is no genuine issue of material fact and the movant is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. Chauvlier v. Booth Creek Ski Holdings, Inc., 109 Wn.App. 334, 338, 35 P.3d 383 (2001). On a motion for summary judgment, we view all evidence and draws all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Id. at 338-39. Where different competing inferences may be drawn from the evidence, the issue must be resolved by the trier of fact. Kuyper v. Dep’t. of Wildlife, 79 Wn.App. 732, 739, 904 P.2d 793 (1995). On appeal, we review an order denying summary judgement de novo. Chauvlier, 109 Wn.App. at 339.
On appeal, Planet Fitness argues that the court erred in denying its motion for summary judgment, because McCoy signed an enforceable liability waiver provision. Planet Fitness contends that the liability waiver provision was so conspicuous that it could not have been unwittingly signed and is therefore enforceable. McCoy argues that a genuine issue of material fact remains as to whether the waiver provision was conspicuous and whether she was given adequate opportunity to read the membership agreement.
II. Legal Principles
The Washington Supreme Court has recognized the right of parties “‘expressly to agree in advance that the defendant is under no obligation of care for the benefit of the plaintiff, and shall not be liable for the consequences of conduct which would otherwise be negligent.'” Wagenblast v. Odessa Sch. Dist., 110 Wn.2d 845, 848, 758 P.2d 968 (1988) (quoting W. Page Keeton, et al, Prosser and Keeton on Torts § 68, at 482 (5th ed. 1984)).
Generally, a liability waiver or exculpatory clause in a contract is “enforceable unless (1) it violates public policy, (2) the negligent act falls greatly below the legal standard for protection of others, or (3) it is inconspicuous.” Johnson v. Spokane to Sandpoint, LLC, 176 Wn.App. 453, 458, 309 P.3d 528 (2013). The first two exceptions are not at issue here. A liability waiver provision is not enforceable if the releasing language is “‘so inconspicuous that reasonable persons could reach different conclusions as to whether the document was unwittingly signed.'” Johnson v. UBAR, LLC, 150 Wn.App. 533, 538, 210 P.3d 1021 (2009) (quoting McCorkle v. Hall, 56 Wn.App. 80, 83, 782 P.2d 574 (1989)).[ 3]
Courts look to several factors in deciding whether a liability waiver provision is conspicuous including: (1) whether the waiver provision is set apart or hidden within other provisions, (2) whether the heading or caption of the provision is clear, (3) whether the waiver provision is set off in capital letters or in bold type, (4) whether there is a signature line below the waiver provision, (5) what the language says above the signature line, and (6) whether it is clear that the signature is related to the waiver provision. See Baker v. City of Seattle, 79 Wn.2d 198, 202, 484 P.2d 405 (1971); McCorkle, 56 Wn.App. at 83-84; Chauvlier, 109 Wn.App. at 342; Stokes v. Bally’s Pacwest, Inc., 113 Wn.App. 442, 448, 54 P.3d 161 (2002).
We do not look to whether the plaintiff unwittingly signed the form from her subjective viewpoint, but whether, “objectively, the waiver provision was so inconspicuous that it is unenforceable.” Stokes, 113 Wn.App. at 446. Essentially, if the waiver provision is hidden, i.e. inconspicuous, it is unenforceable. Nevertheless, even if the waiver provision is conspicuous, and a person signs without reading it, the provision is enforceable unless the signor was not given an opportunity to read it. Chauvlier, 109 Wn.App. at 341 (“[A] person who signs an agreement without reading it is bound by its terms as long as there was ‘ample opportunity to examine the contract in as great a detail as he cared, and he failed to do so for his own personal reasons.'”) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Nat’l Bank of Wash. v. Equity Inv’rs, 81 Wn.2d 886, 913, 506 P.2d 20 (1973)).
A. Conspicuousness of the Waiver Provision
We first consider whether the waiver provision is inconspicuous so as to invalidate the agreement. Stokes, 113 Wn.App. at 446. Here, the waiver provision contains some, but not all of the elements that we have found significant in determining the conspicuousness of waiver provisions.
1. The Waiver Provision is Set Apart from Other Provisions
To determine if the waiver provision is conspicuous, we first look at whether it is set apart or hidden within other provisions. In Baker, our Supreme Court held that the waiver provision was unenforceable because it was set in the middle of the agreement without anything to distinguish it from the rest of the terms of the agreement. 79 Wn.2d at 202. Here, the waiver provision is set off by a shaded banner or header with a title indicating that the subject of the following section is a “RELEASE OF LIABILITY” and “ASSUMPTION OF RISK.” CP at 25. The waiver language is not hidden within other provisions. This factor supports a finding of conspicuousness.
2. The Heading of the Waiver Provision is Clear
We also look to whether the heading or caption of the waiver provision is clear. For example, the plaintiff in McCorkle argued that the title “Liability Statement” in the agreement did not allow him to “conclude [that] future negligent conduct was being released.” 56 Wn.App. at 83. This court contrasted the title “Liability Statement” with the release provisions in two earlier cases that were deemed conspicuous because their titles clearly and unambiguously indicated that they dealt with a waiver of liability. Id. In contrast, in Chauvlier, this court found clear and enforceable a waiver provision entitled “LIABILITY RELEASE & PROMISE NOT TO SUE. PLEASE READ CAREFULLY!” 109 Wn.App. at 342.
Here, the shaded header reads: “RELEASE OF LIABILITY,” “ASSUMPTION OF RISK,” “CLUB RULES,” and “BUYER’S NOTICE & RIGHT TO CANCEL.” CP at 25. Although the header indicates that release of liability and assumption of the risk are not the only topics of the following paragraphs, it is clear from the header what the following provision contains-namely, a release of liability and an assumption of the risk. The inclusion of the other two subjects does not make the heading of the provision unclear or the reader ignorant of what is contained below the shaded header. This factor supports a finding of conspicuousness.
3. The Appearance of the Waiver Provision Language is Not Emphasized We then look to the appearance or attributes of the waiver provision itself, like whether the words are emphasized in capital letters or in bold type. For example, in Stokes and Chauvlier, the words indicating release of liability appear in bold or capital letters throughout the provisions. 113 Wn.App. at 448; 109 Wn.App. at 342. Here, the body of the waiver provision is in the same size and type of text as the remainder of the form and has no bold or capital letters. This factor does not support a finding of conspicuousness.
4. The Signature Line
We next consider the signature line and its relation to the waiver provision. Specifically, whether it is located below the waiver provision, what the language above the signature line indicates, and whether it is clear that the required signature is related to the release of liability. Chauvlier, 109 Wn.App. at 342; Stokes, 113 Wn.App. at 448; UBAR, LLC, 150 Wn.App. at 538.
a. The Signature Line is Below the Waiver Provision
Here, the signature line is below the waiver provision. This supports a finding of conspicuousness.
b. The Language Immediately Above the Signature Line does Not Relate only to the Waiver Provision
Here, although the signature line is located below the waiver provision, the signature and waiver are separated by an intervening paragraph. The first paragraph underneath the header relates to the waiver of liability. The second paragraph, situated directly above the signature line relates to the club rules and the right to cancel. This second paragraph also states: “By signing below, I acknowledge and agree to all of the terms contained on the front and back of this agreement.” CP at 25.
In Stokes, this court held that reasonable minds could not differ regarding the conspicuousness of a waiver provision contained in a retail installment contract. 113 Wn.App. at 448. This court’s determination relied in part on the fact that a statement immediately below the signature line said that the contract contained a waiver and release to which the signatory would be bound. Stokes, 113 Wn.App. at 448. In Chauvlier, this court relied in part on a statement directly above the signature line reading: “I have read, understood, and accepted the conditions of the Liability Release printed above” in making its determination that the waiver provision at issue was conspicuous and enforceable. 109 Wn.App. at 342. Here, the statement above the signature line is unlike those contained in the contracts held to be enforceable in Stokes and Chauvlier, because it relates to all provisions of the membership agreement, rather than only the waiver provision. This factor does not support a finding of conspicuousness.
c. The Required Signature Relates to the Waiver Provision
Although separated by a paragraph, the signature line clearly relates to the waiver provision because it is spatially oriented near the waiver provision. It is within the area set off by the large banner described above and by its own language relates to the “all of the terms contained” in the agreement. CP at 25. This factor also favors a finding of conspicuousness.
In summary, although the signature line does not correspond solely to the waiver provision, the provision is set apart from the other provisions of the contract by a banner, the caption heading within the banner clearly identifies the contents of the waiver, the signature line is below the waiver provision and it clearly relates to the waiver provision. We conclude that the waiver provision is conspicuous.
B. Opportunity to Examine the Agreement
McCoy admits that she did not read the agreement. Even though she did not read the agreement, she would be bound by its terms only if there was opportunity to examine the contract in as great a detail as she cared, and she failed to do so for her own personal reasons. Yakima County ( W.Valley) Fire Prot. Dist. No. 12 v. City of Yakima, 122 Wn.2d 371, 389, 858 P.2d 245 (1993) (“Where a party has signed a contract without reading it, that party cannot successfully argue that mutual assent was lacking as long as the party was not deprived of the opportunity to read the contract.”).
McCoy asserts that the Planet Fitness employee identified the agreement as a “mere formalit[y]” that she had to sign in order to join the club. CP at 140. The employee “showed [her] where to sign on a couple documents and [she] signed them, but [she] was not given an opportunity to read all the language” because he immediately took the papers back. CP at 140-41. When McCoy mentioned that she had not been able to read them, he told her that he would mail them to her home address. McCoy was apparently satisfied with not reading it before signing. Although McCoy asserts that she was not given the opportunity to read the membership agreement, there is no indication that she could not have read the contract either before or after she signed it if she had asked. Additionally, McCoy sought out the membership and there is no evidence that she was coerced. The waiver was conspicuous as a matter of law, McCoy has not shown that there is a genuine issue of material fact regarding her opportunity to read the membership agreement. In any case, even if she felt rushed to sign the document, the waiver language was, as a matter of law, conspicuous enough for her to notice it.
The liability waiver was conspicuous. McCoy did not demonstrate an issue of fact regarding her opportunity to read the membership agreement. Accordingly, we reverse.[ 4]
A majority of the panel having determined that this opinion will not be printed in the Washington Appellate Reports, but will be filed for public record in accordance with RCW 2.06.040, it is so ordered.
We concur: Worswick, J. Lee, C.J.
[ 1] Alternatively, the parties and witnesses refer to the “membership agreement” as “the documents” and “the contract.” We will refer to it as the “membership agreement” throughout this opinion. The liability waiver provision is contained within the membership agreement. Throughout the remainder of this opinion, we will refer to this provision simply as the “waiver provision.”
[ 2] The claims against Brunswick are not at issue in this appeal.
[ 3] Although the inconspicuousness of a waiver provision appears to be a factual inquiry, the Supreme Court in Baker v. City of Seattle, 79 Wn.2d 198, 484 P.2d 405 (1971), determined that a liability waiver provision hidden in the middle of an agreement was so inconspicuous that, as a matter of public policy, it would be unconscionable to enforce it. Subsequent courts of appeal have treated the issue of conspicuousness, as the Baker holding implies, as a matter of law determined by the court. See e.g. Stokes v. Bally’s Pacwest, Inc., 113 Wn.App. 442, 448, 54 P.3d 161 (2002)(“The language is conspicuous, as a matter of law, and it was not unwittingly signed.”).
[ 4] Because we reverse the denial of summary judgment, we do not reach the issue of whether the court abused its discretion in denying the motion for reconsideration.
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
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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 gymPosted: June 26, 2017
Plaintiff’s arguments about the release and attempt to invalidate the release by claiming gross negligence all failed.
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
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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Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law
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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.
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
[*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.
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….”
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
Allegations of fraud inducing a non-English speaking client to sign a release are enough to void the release in California.Posted: April 18, 2016
Second issue, intentionally increasing the risk to the plaintiff after the release has been signed is also enough to void a release.
Plaintiff: Etelvina Jimenez et al.
Defendant: 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc.
Plaintiff Claims: 1) the liability release is not enforceable against plaintiffs’ claim of gross negligence; (2) the release was obtained by fraud and misrepresentation; and (3) the release only encompasses reasonably foreseeable risks and Etelvina’s injury was not reasonably foreseeable at the time she signed the release.
Defendant Defenses: Release
Holding: for the plaintiff
This is a fitness center case that has two very important issues in the appellate court decision. The first is proof of a product liability claim against the defendant fitness facility for failing to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations. The second is the release may be void because the plaintiff did not read or understand English, and she was fraudulent induced to sign the release.
The plaintiff went to the defendant fitness facility to join. At the time, she did not read or speak English. The plaintiff was directed to the membership manager. During their interaction, he used gestures and pointed to the monthly price on a computer monitor.
On the day she joined, she was directed to the membership manager, Justin Wilbourn. She was then required to sign a membership agreement. However, Etelvina could not read or speak English, and Wilbourn did not speak Spanish. Wilbourn knew Etelvina did not read or speak English. Nevertheless, he did not call a Spanish-speaking employee to help him translate. Instead, he pointed to his computer screen to a figure, $24.99, indicating the membership fee, and made pumping motions with his arms like he were exercising. Etelvina understood the numbers, which are identical in Spanish, and she understood Wilbourn’s physical gestures to mean that if she paid that amount, she could use the facility. She could not read anything else. Wilbourn then pointed to the lines in the agreement for Etelvina to sign.
The plaintiff signed the release and had been a member for two years when the incident occurred.
The plaintiff was injured when she fell off a treadmill. She does not remember the incident. Expert witnesses for the plaintiff established she fell and suffered a head injury when she struck an exposed steel foot of a leg exercise machine. The exposed foot was 3’ 10” behind the treadmill she was on. The owner’s manual of the treadmill and an expert witness hired by the plaintiff stated the safety area behind the treadmill should be 6’ x 3’.
However, the treadmill manufacturer’s owner’s manual instructed in a section titled “Treadmill Safety Features”: “[I]t is important to keep the area around the treadmill open and free from encumbrances such as other equipment. The minimum space requirement needed for user safety and proper maintenance is three feet wide by six feet deep … directly behind the running belt.” The manufacturer’s assembly guide for the treadmill also says to provide a minimum six-foot clearance behind the treadmill for “user safety” and maintenance.
The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, which was granted and the plaintiff appealed.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The court first laid out when a motion for summary judgment should be granted by the trial court. The party filling the motion must argue there are not factual issues, only legal issues and the law is on the side of the party filing. The responding party then to stop the granting of the motion must argue there are factual issues still at issue. When looking at the motions any decision that must be decided must be done so in favor of the party opposing the motion.
A trial court properly grants summary judgment where no triable issue of material fact exists and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” “[G]enerally, from commencement to conclusion, the party moving for summary judgment bears the burden of persuasion that there is no triable issue of material fact fact, that he is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” If a defendant shows that one or more elements of a cause of action cannot be established or that there is a complete defense to that cause of action, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to show that a triable issue exists as to one or more material facts. If the trial court finds that no triable issue of fact exists, it then has the duty to determine the issue of law.
The court then looked at the definition of ordinary negligence and gross negligence under California law.
“‘Ordinary negligence’–an unintentional tort–consists of a failure to exercise the degree of care in a given situation that a reasonable person under similar circumstances would employ to protect others from harm.’Gross negligence’ long has been defined in California and other jurisdictions as either a ‘”‘want of even scant care'”‘ or ‘”‘an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.’
The court then examined the arguments concerning the product liability claims. The defendant argued that there was no industry standard of care for a safety zone around the treadmill. However, the court did not buy the argument because the manufacturer’s manual described a safety zone that should be observed.
24 Hour contends that there was no industry standard regarding a treadmill safety zone. They offer no cases or examples of any industry standard that violates a manufacturer’s safety directions. Indeed, it could be reasonably inferred that it is unlikely an industry would develop a standard that violates the express safety directions of the manufacturer.
The plaintiff’s pointed to three different requirements for a safety zone. The manufacturer’s owner’s manual, the manufacturer’s assembly instructions and the testimony of an expert witness of the plaintiff.
(1) the treadmill manufacturer’s owner’s manual instructed in its “Treadmill Safety Features” section that “[t]he minimum space requirement needed for user safety and proper maintenance is three feet wide by six feet deep”; (2) the manufacturer’s assembly guide for the treadmill also instructs that the treadmill requires a minimum six-foot-deep clearance behind it “for user safety and proper maintenance” (italics added); and (3) plaintiffs’ expert, Waldon, declared that “[f]or the safety of the users and in order to minimize injury, it is important that a safety zone behind the treadmill be kept clear of other machines and obstacles so that users falling off or pushed off the rear of the treadmill do not strike such objects,” and he opined that 24 Hour’s act of placing other exercise equipment inside the safety zone “greatly increased the risk of injury to [Etelvina].”
The evidence presented by the plaintiff the court found could be viewed as an industry standard.
In our view, based on the evidence plaintiffs presented, a jury could reasonably find that (1) it is standard practice in the industry to provide a minimum six-foot safety zone behind treadmills, based on the owner’s manual, assembly guide, and Waldon’s declaration as an expert; (2) 24 Hour did not provide this minimum six-foot safety zone, as declared by Neuman; and (3) the failure to provide the minimum safety zone was an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct, as implied in Waldon’s declaration.
Later in reinforcing its statement the court found the only reason to place so many pieces of equipment so close together would be to make more money. “It can be inferred that 24 Hour did so for the purpose of placing more machines into its facility to accommodate more members to make more money.”
The next issue was the issue that the release was obtained by fraud and misrepresentation.
Plaintiffs contend that there are triable issues of fact as to whether 24 Hour obtained Etelvina’s sig-nature on the liability release through fraud and misrepresentation, which would invalidate the release as to all of plaintiffs’ theories of recovery.
The court looked at what a release is and when it can be voided.
A release may negate the duty element of a negligence action.” As we have noted, in order to absolve itself of responsibility for any ordinary negligence, it was 24 Hour’s burden to establish the validity of the release “as applied to the case at hand.”
Generally, a person who signs an instrument may not avoid the impact of its terms on the ground that she failed to read it before signing. However, a release is invalid when it is procured by misrepresentation, overreaching, deception, or fraud. “It has often been held that if the releaser was under a misapprehension, not due to his own neglect, as to the nature or scope of the release, and if this misapprehension was induced by the misconduct of the releasee, then the release, regardless of how comprehensively worded, is binding only to the extent actually intended by the releaser.”
The defendant argued there was no evidence that the employee made affirmative representations that the plaintiff to believe she was signing anything other than what was in front of her, the release.
Another significant issue the court found was the failure of the defendant employee to follow his own policy in this case and find a Spanish-speaking employee to translate. The defendant argued it had no duty to translate the release to the plaintiff.
However, the court stated it does not require a strong showing of misconduct to go to a jury on fraud and misrepresentation, only a slight showing. “A strong showing of misconduct” by the plaintiff is not necessary to demonstrate the existence of a triable issue of fact here; only a “‘slight showing'” is required.”
Here, if a jury were to be persuaded that Wilbourn made misrepresentations to Etelvina about the contents of the agreement by making nonverbal gestures indicating that what she was signing related only to being allowed to exercise if she paid the price on the computer screen, it would be entitled to find that Etelvina’s signature on the release was produced by misrepresentation and that the release is not enforceable against her.
Looking at all the facts and inferences construed in the favor of the plaintiff the court found the evidence could be interpreted by a jury to be fraud.
The last issue and the one that should be a clear warning to all, is the change in the risk by the defendant after the plaintiff signed the release. The person signing the release assumes the standard safety precautions are being undertaken by the defendant at the time the release is signed. If those precautions are changed, meaning increased by the defendant after the release is signed, the release may be unenforceable.
On appeal, plaintiffs also contend that the release is unenforceable because a release only encompasses risks that are foreseeable at the time it is signed, and it was not reasonably foreseeable that 24 Hour would intentionally increase the risk of danger to its treadmill users.
However, the plaintiff’s did not raise this argument at the trial court so the court did not rule on it. However, the court clearly thought it would be sufficient to void the release in this case.
So Now What?
There are two clear issues here that everyone should be aware of. The first is if the manufacturer of a product says this is how the product should be used; this can be interpreted as the standard of care and how you MUST use the product. That use of the product includes any safety information the product describes.
The second is any act that could be interpreted as fraudulent can be used to void a release. The release was not voided because the plaintiff could not read or understand it. The release was sent back to determine if the actions of the defendant were fraudulent in inducing the plaintiff to sign the release.
The final issue is the change of the risk after the release is signed. The court seems to say that at the time the release is signed the risk can be assumed by the plaintiff to be the normal risks associated with the activity or sport. If at any time after the release is signed, the actions of the defendant change or increase those risks, the release maybe void by the plaintiff.
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Jimenez et al., v. 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc., 237 Cal. App. 4th 546; 188 Cal. Rptr. 3d 228; 2015 Cal. App. LEXIS 494Posted: March 29, 2016
Etelvina Jimenez et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc., Defendant and Respondent.
COURT OF APPEAL OF CALIFORNIA, THIRD APPELLATE DISTRICT
237 Cal. App. 4th 546; 188 Cal. Rptr. 3d 228; 2015 Cal. App. LEXIS 494
June 9, 2015, Opinion Filed
SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Time for Granting or Denying Review Extended Jimenez v. 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc., 2015 Cal. LEXIS 8476 (Cal., Aug. 10, 2015)
Review denied by, Request denied by Jimenez v. 24 Hour Fitness United States, 2015 Cal. LEXIS 9252 (Cal., Sept. 23, 2015)
PRIOR HISTORY: [***1] APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Sacramento County, No. 34201100096852-CUPOGDS, David I. Brown, Judge.
COUNSEL: Moseley Collins III and Thomas G. Minder for Plaintiffs and Appellants.
Bruce L. Davis and Jack C. Nick for Defendant and Respondent.
JUDGES: Opinion by Murray, J., with Blease, Acting P. J., and Hull, J., concurring.
OPINION BY: Murray, J.
[**230] MURRAY, J.–Plaintiffs Etelvina and Pedro Jimenez appeal from summary judgment in favor of defendant 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc. (24 Hour), in plaintiffs’ negligence action stemming from a catastrophic injury sustained by Etelvina while using a treadmill at 24 Hour. Plaintiffs asserted that 24 Hour was grossly negligent in setting up the treadmill in a manner that violated the manufacturer’s safety instructions. 24 Hour moved for summary judgment, contending that it was not liable as a matter of law because Etelvina signed a liability release when she joined the gym. The trial court agreed and granted summary judgment.
On appeal, plaintiffs contend that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment in 24 Hour’s favor because (1) the liability release is not enforceable against plaintiffs’ claim of gross negligence; (2) the release was obtained [***2] by fraud and misrepresentation; and (3) the release only encompasses reasonably foreseeable risks and Etelvina’s injury was not reasonably foreseeable at the time she signed the release.
The third contention is forfeited for purposes of this appeal, but we agree with the first two contentions. Accordingly, we reverse. [*549]
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
1 The facts are taken from plaintiffs’ and 24 Hour’s separate statements of fact. The only fact that was specifically disputed was 24 Hour’s claim that plaintiffs did not identify “any statutory violation committed by 24 Hour.” Plaintiffs disputed this assertion, responding that Civil Code section 1668 precludes releases obtained through fraud. 24 Hour did not dispute any of plaintiffs’ facts but did object to most of them on various evidentiary grounds, and the trial court overruled these objections. The court’s ruling on defendant’s objections is not challenged on appeal. Accordingly, plaintiffs’ separate statement of facts is undisputed for purposes of our review on appeal. (See Guz v. Bechtel National, Inc. (2000) 24 Cal.4th 317, 334 [100 Cal. Rptr. 2d 352, 8 P.3d 1089] [“On [HN1] appeal after a motion for summary judgment has been granted, we review the record de novo, considering all the evidence set forth in the moving and opposition papers [***3] except that to which objections have been made and sustained.”].)
Plaintiffs filed a complaint against 24 Hour stating causes of action for premises [**231] liability, general negligence, and loss of consortium. The action arose out of injuries Etelvina sustained on January 16, 2011, while exercising at a 24 Hour facility in Sacramento, California. Etelvina’s expert opined that she fell backwards off of a moving treadmill and sustained severe head injuries when she hit her head on the exposed steel foot of a leg exercise machine that 24 Hour placed approximately three feet 10 inches behind the treadmill.
24 Hour filed an answer to the complaint generally denying the allegations and claiming several affirmative defenses, including the defense that plaintiffs’ claims were barred by a liability release.
At the time of her injuries, Etelvina was a member of 24 Hour. She joined 24 Hour approximately two years before the day she sustained her injury, and thereafter, she used the facilities regularly several times per week. On the day she joined, she was directed to the membership manager, Justin Wilbourn. She was then required to sign a membership agreement. However, Etelvina could not read or speak [***4] English, and Wilbourn did not speak Spanish. Wilbourn knew Etelvina did not read or speak English. Nevertheless, he did not call a Spanish-speaking employee to help him translate. Instead, he pointed to his computer screen to a figure, $24.99, indicating the membership fee, and made pumping motions with his arms like he was exercising. Etelvina understood the numbers, which are identical in Spanish, and she understood Wilbourn’s physical gestures to mean that if she paid that amount, she could use the facility. She could not read anything else. Wilbourn then pointed to the lines in the agreement for Etelvina to sign.
The membership agreement contained a liability release provision, which provided: “Using the 24 Hour USA, Inc. (24 Hour) facilities involves the risk [*550] of injury to you or your guest, whether you or someone else causes it. Specific risks vary from one activity to another and the risks range from minor injuries to major injuries, such as catastrophic injuries including death. In consideration of your participation in the activities offered by 24 Hour, you understand and voluntarily accept this risk and agree that 24 Hour, its officers, directors, employees, volunteers, agents [***5] and independent contractors will not be liable for any injury, including, without limitation, personal, bodily, or mental injury, economic loss or any damage to you, your spouse, guests, unborn child, or relatives resulting from the negligence of 24 Hour or anyone on 24 Hour’s behalf or anyone using the facilities whether related to exercise or not. … By signing below, you acknowledge and agree that you have read the foregoing and know of the nature of the activities at 24 Hour and you agree to all the terms on pages 1 through 4 of this agreement and acknowledge that you have received a copy of it and the membership policies.”
Wilbourn did not point out the release to Etelvina or make any other indications about the scope of the agreement aside from his gestures mimicking exercise and the fee. Etelvina believed she signed an agreement only to pay the monthly fee of [**232] $24.99. In her declaration supporting plaintiffs’ separate statement, Etelvina declared that “Wilbourn misrepresented the agreement and deceived [her]. He hid from [her] that she was also signing a release of liability.” Etelvina also declared that Wilbourn “misled” and “defrauded” her, and she relied on Wilbourn’s “indication [***6] of the meaning of the contract.”2
2 Plaintiffs also submitted a declaration by Etelvina’s sister, Emelia Villaseñor, who declared that she went through the same process at 24 Hour and was similarly misled as to the contents of the membership agreement.
Etelvina has no memory of the incident leading to her injuries. However, Laurence H. Neuman, an expert on civil engineering and accident reconstruction, investigated the incident. In the course of his investigation, Neuman determined that the 24 Hour location in question had 21 treadmill machines. In the area where Etelvina fell, “the distance directly behind the running belt of the treadmill to the closest piece of equipment was 3 feet 10 inches.” Neuman determined that other treadmills in the gym were placed with an even shorter distance between the running belts and other gym equipment, approximately three feet. These measurements reflect the same conditions present at the time of Etelvina’s injuries.
However, the treadmill manufacturer’s owner’s manual instructed in a section titled “Treadmill Safety Features”: “[I]t is important to keep the area around the treadmill open and free from encumbrances such as other equipment. The minimum space [***7] requirement needed for user safety and proper [*551] maintenance is three feet wide by six feet deep … directly behind the running belt.” (Italics added.) The manufacturer’s assembly guide for the treadmill also says to provide a minimum six-foot clearance behind the treadmill for “user safety” and maintenance. Neuman determined that none of the 21 treadmills at this 24 Hour location had a six-foot safety clearance. Neuman concluded that 24 Hour’s act of placing other exercise equipment within the six-foot safety zone increased the risk of injury to persons using the treadmills.
Dr. James P. Dickens assessed Etelvina’s injuries, her medical records, and Neuman’s findings, and he determined that Etelvina fell backward while using the treadmill and “struck her head, fracturing the right occipital bone and right temporal bone.” Dr. Dickens noted that while the gym floor is covered with shock-absorbing material, there was a leg exercise machine with an exposed steel foot that was approximately three feet 10 inches behind the treadmill’s moving belt. Dr. Dickens opined that it was unlikely that Etelvina would have suffered the skull fractures had her head landed on the shock-absorbing floor [***8] coverings behind the treadmill and she likely hit her head on the leg machine. Additionally, Barton Waldon, a certified personal fitness trainer, opined that it is foreseeable that treadmill users occasionally trip, stumble, or fall off treadmills. Waldon declared that “[f]or the safety of the users and in order to minimize injury, it is important that a safety zone behind the treadmill be kept clear of other machines and obstacles so that users falling off or pushed off the rear of the treadmill do not strike such objects.” Accordingly, Waldon opined that 24 Hour’s act of placing exercise equipment inside the safety zone “greatly increased the risk of injury to [Etelvina].”
In his deposition, Wilbourn, the membership manager for 24 Hour, said that he did not remember meeting Etelvina, although he identified himself as the employee [**233] who assisted her based on his signature on her membership agreement. Wilbourn testified that typically, when he encountered a potential customer who only spoke Spanish, his habit and custom was to have a Spanish-speaking employee handle the signup for that potential customer.
Motion for Summary Judgment
24 Hour filed a motion for summary judgment, or in the alternative, [***9] summary adjudication, asserting that plaintiffs’ claims were barred by the release. As for the loss of consortium cause of action, 24 Hour argued the claim was barred because it was derivative of plaintiffs’ negligence and premises liability causes of action. Plaintiffs opposed the motion, contending that the release was invalid because 24 Hour was grossly negligent and because 24 Hour obtained the release through fraud. However, plaintiffs did not specifically raise the argument that the release did not encompass [*552] Etelvina’s injury because it was not reasonably foreseeable to her at the time she signed the release that 24 Hour would intentionally increase her risk of injury.
Plaintiffs argued that due to 24 Hour’s fraud in obtaining Etelvina’s signature on the release, the release was ineffective. Plaintiffs further argued that the holding in Randas v. YMCA of Metropolitan Los Angeles (1993) 17 Cal.App.4th 158, 163 [21 Cal. Rptr. 2d 245] (Randas), does not apply here, because in this case, unlike in Randas, there was overreaching and fraud. The court inquired how Etelvina could know that Wilbourn misrepresented the nature of the release if she could not understand English. Plaintiffs’ counsel replied that Wilbourn communicated with her about the purported contents of the membership [***10] agreement through gesturing and pointing at the numbers on the computer screen. The court then inquired about the gross negligence exception to enforcing releases, pointing out that plaintiffs did not specifically allege a cause of action for gross negligence in their complaint. Plaintiffs responded that under California law, there is not a distinct cause of action for gross negligence and alleging general negligence suffices.3 Plaintiffs also contended that the question of gross negligence is a question of fact to be resolved by the jury rather than a matter of law to be resolved on summary judgment. The court questioned whether there was an industry standard on the appropriate safety clearance behind treadmills. Plaintiffs contended that the industry standard is evidenced in the manufacturer’s directions and Waldon’s declaration. The court expressed concern that Waldon’s “assumption is predicated upon the fact that she was on the treadmill. If you assume she was not on the treadmill, and we don’t have any tissue or hair or blood on a piece of equipment that would allow us to pinpoint where it is, we can’t really know what was happening at the time of the accident.” The court indicated [***11] that while that circumstance did not necessarily mean defendant should prevail, it was something for the court to consider. Plaintiffs’ counsel responded that the court identified a factual dispute in the case for a jury to decide.
3 24 Hour does not make a contrary argument on appeal. We agree with plaintiffs that [HN2] California does not recognize a distinct common law cause of action for gross negligence apart from negligence. (City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court (2007) 41 Cal.4th 747, 779-780 [62 Cal. Rptr. 3d 527, 161 P.3d 1095] (Santa Barbara); Continental Ins. Co. v. American Protection Industries (1987) 197 Cal.App.3d 322, 329-330 [242 Cal. Rptr. 784].) As a degree of negligence, “[g]ross negligence is pleaded by alleging the traditional elements of negligence: duty, breach, causation, and damages.” (Rosencrans v. Dover Images, Ltd. (2011) 192 Cal.App.4th 1072, 1082 [122 Cal. Rptr. 3d 22] (Rosencrans).)
[**234] During oral argument in the trial court, 24 Hour focused on the question of whether there was evidence of gross negligence, claiming it was impossible to detect the cause of plaintiffs’ injuries because she could not remember what happened. The trial court observed that this might be “a question of [*553] proof at trial.” The court then asked defense counsel why Etelvina’s testimony that Wilbourn misrepresented the content of the release would not create a factual issue for trial. Defense counsel responded that there was no evidence of “an affirmative act to deceive.” The court took the matter [***12] under submission.
The trial court granted 24 Hour’s motion. In its ruling, the court wrote that plaintiffs failed to present any evidence that Wilbourn “made any affirmative representations that led [Etelvina] to believe she was signing something other than what the agreement, on its face, purported to be.” The court further wrote that “[t]he fact that [Etelvina] elected to sign the agreement without understanding all of its terms cannot be considered the fault of [24 Hour].” With respect to the gross negligence argument, the court was persuaded by 24 Hour’s argument that, as a matter of law, a space of three to four feet as opposed to the recommended six-foot safety zone cannot constitute gross negligence, because “it does not reflect an ‘extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.'” The court reasoned that 24 Hour’s “placement of the treadmill constitutes at most, ordinary negligence.” Consequently, the court ruled that plaintiffs “failed to demonstrate a triable issue of material fact with regard to the enforceability of the release.”
I. Standards of Review
[HN3] “A trial court properly grants summary judgment where no triable issue of material fact exists and the moving [***13] party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” (Merrill v. Navegar, Inc. (2001) 26 Cal.4th 465, 476 [110 Cal. Rptr. 2d 370, 28 P.3d 116] (Merrill), citing Code Civ. Proc., § 437c, subd. (c).) “[G]enerally, from commencement to conclusion, the party moving for summary judgment bears the burden of persuasion that there is no triable issue of material fact and that he is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” (Aguilar v. Atlantic Richfield Co. (2001) 25 Cal.4th 826, 850 [107 Cal. Rptr. 2d 841, 24 P.3d 493], fn. omitted (Aguilar).) If a defendant shows that one or more elements of a cause of action cannot be established or that there is a complete defense to that cause of action, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to show that a triable issue exists as to one or more material facts. (Doe v. California Lutheran High School Assn. (2009) 170 Cal.App.4th 828, 834 [88 Cal. Rptr. 3d 475], citing Aguilar, supra, 25 Cal.4th at p. 849.) If the trial court finds that no triable issue of fact exists, it then has the duty to determine the issue of law. (California School of Culinary Arts v. Lujan (2003) 112 Cal.App.4th 16, 22 [4 Cal. Rptr. 3d 785].)
[HN4] On appeal, we review the trial court’s decision de novo. (Merrill, supra, 26 Cal.4th at p. 476.) We independently review the papers supporting and [*554] opposing the motion, considering all the evidence offered in connection with the motion and any inferences that the evidence reasonably supports, applying the same rules and standards as the trial court. (Ibid.) We view the evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiffs as the losing parties. (Saelzler v. Advanced Group 400 (2001) 25 Cal.4th 763, 768-769 [107 Cal. Rptr. 2d 617, 23 P.3d 1143].) In liberally construing the evidence [**235] in favor of the party opposing the motion, we resolve [***14] all doubts concerning the evidence in favor of the opponent. (Miller v. Department of Corrections (2005) 36 Cal.4th 446, 460 [30 Cal. Rptr. 3d 797, 115 P.3d 77].)
II. Gross Negligence
A. The Parties’ Contentions
24 Hour contends it met its burden of showing that plaintiffs could not establish the duty element of their negligence cause of action by producing a valid release and the burden thus shifted to plaintiffs to show a triable issue of material fact. (Cf. Aguilar, supra, 25 Cal.4th at p. 849.) 24 Hour contends that plaintiffs failed to meet this burden and, accordingly, summary judgment was appropriate. Conversely, plaintiffs contend that there are triable issues of fact regarding the question of whether 24 Hour’s conduct constituted gross negligence, which would preclude 24 Hour’s reliance on the release to absolve it from liability. 24 Hour responds that the question of gross negligence was properly decided as a matter of law because plaintiffs’ allegation of gross negligence was unsupported in their summary judgment pleadings. Viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to plaintiffs, liberally construing that evidence and resolving all doubts in their favor, we disagree with 24 Hour.
(1) ” [HN5] While often referred to as a defense, a release of future liability is more appropriately characterized as an express [***15] assumption of the risk that negates the defendant’s duty of care, an element of the plaintiff’s case. ‘”… The result is that the defendant is relieved of legal duty to the plaintiff; and being under no duty, he cannot be charged with negligence.” [Citation.]'” (Eriksson v. Nunnink (2015) 233 Cal.App.4th 708, 719 [183 Cal. Rptr. 3d 234] (Eriksson II).) In a summary judgment motion, the defendant bears the burden of establishing the validity of a release “as applied to the case at hand.” (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 780, fn. 58; see Eriksson v. Nunnink (2011) 191 Cal.App.4th 826, 856 [120 Cal. Rptr. 3d 90] (Eriksson I).)
[HN6] A release cannot absolve a party from liability for gross negligence. (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at pp. 750-751, 776-777.) In Santa Barbara, our [*555] high court reasoned that “the distinction between ‘ordinary and gross negligence’ reflects ‘a rule of policy’ that harsher legal consequences should flow when negligence is aggravated instead of merely ordinary.” (Id. at p. 776, quoting Donnelly v. Southern Pacific Co. (1941) 18 Cal.2d 863, 871 [118 P.2d 465].) A liability release, “to the extent it purports to release liability for future gross negligence, violates public policy and is unenforceable.” (Santa Barbara, at p. 751.)
(2) The issue we must determine here is whether, with all facts and inferences construed in plaintiffs’ favor, the conduct shown by plaintiffs’ evidence could be found to constitute gross negligence. If so, then it is a question of fact for the jury to determine whether the [***16] release in this case was unenforceable for that reason. As our high court has noted, [HN7] whether conduct constitutes gross negligence is generally a question of fact, depending on the nature of the act and the surrounding circumstances shown by the evidence. (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at pp. 767, 781 [reasoning that whether the evidence showed lack of care sufficient to constitute gross negligence was a triable issue of fact [**236] in that case].) The Courts of Appeal have followed suit, holding that generally, [HN8] it is a triable issue of fact whether a defendant’s lack of care constitutes gross negligence. (Decker v. City of Imperial Beach (1989) 209 Cal.App.3d 349, 358 [257 Cal. Rptr. 356] (Decker).) And when reviewing summary judgment based on the absence of a triable issue of fact as to gross negligence, we must resolve every reasonable doubt in favor of the plaintiffs. (Rosencrans, supra, 192 Cal.App.4th at p. 1088.)
“‘Ordinary negligence’–an unintentional tort–consists of a failure to exercise the degree of care in a given situation that a reasonable person under similar circumstances would employ to protect others from harm. [Citation.] [¶] [HN9] ‘Gross negligence’ long has been defined in California and other jurisdictions as either a ‘”‘want of even scant care'”‘ or ‘”‘an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.'”‘” (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at pp. 753-754; see Eastburn v. Regional Fire Protection Authority (2003) 31 Cal.4th 1175, 1185-1186 [7 Cal. Rptr. 3d 552, 80 P.3d 656] (Eastburn).)
In [***17] Santa Barbara, a developmentally disabled child attended a special summer camp for disabled children run by the city. (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at pp. 750-753.) Because she had frequent seizures, the child was assigned a counselor to monitor her closely. (Id. at p. 752.) However, when her counselor momentarily turned her attention away from the child, who was at that time swimming toward the side of the pool, the child suffered a seizure and drowned. (Id. at p. 753.) The city contended that a release signed by the child’s mother had absolved the city of liability for any negligence. (Id. at pp. 750, 753.) On appeal, our high court held that the family’s gross [*556] negligence claim was not barred by the release because an agreement purporting to protect the releasee from liability for conduct rising to the level of gross negligence is against public policy. (Id. at pp. 770-777.)
In Rosencrans, where the court concluded there was a question of fact regarding gross negligence, the showing was similar to the showing in the instant case. In that case, a motorcyclist was injured during motocross practice.4 (Rosencrans, supra, 192 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1077, 1083.) The plaintiffs presented two pieces of evidence in opposition to the defendant’s summary judgment motion, indicating that there was an industry standard to provide caution flaggers [***18] on motocross tracks: (1) the “‘Brett Downey Safety Foundation Instructional Manual for Caution Flaggers,'” which provided that caution flaggers should be at their stations at all times while motorcyclists are on the course (id. at p. 1086) and (2) a motocross safety expert’s declaration that “the common practice for motocross tracks is to have caution flaggers at their assigned posts at all times …” (ibid.). The court held that because “it is standard practice in the industry to have caution flaggers on their platforms at all times … ,” the defendant’s failure to provide a caution flagger raised a triable issue of material fact on the question of gross negligence. (Id. at pp. 1081, 1086-1087.)
4 “Motocross is a sport in which people ride motorcycles and perform jumps off of ramps, while in a setting filled with dust and other people on motorcycles.” (Rosencrans, supra, 192 Cal.App.4th at p. 1083.)
[**237] 24 Hour contends that there was no industry standard regarding a treadmill safety zone. They offer no cases or examples of any industry standard that violates a manufacturer’s safety directions. Indeed, it could be reasonably inferred that it is unlikely an industry would develop a standard that violates the express safety directions of the manufacturer. Plaintiffs, on the other [***19] hand, presented three pieces of evidence indicating a possible industry standard on treadmill safety zones: (1) the treadmill manufacturer’s owner’s manual instructed in its “Treadmill Safety Features” section that “[t]he minimum space requirement needed for user safety and proper maintenance is three feet wide by six feet deep” (italics added); (2) the manufacturer’s assembly guide for the treadmill also instructs that the treadmill requires a minimum six-foot-deep clearance behind it “for user safety and proper maintenance” (italics added); and (3) plaintiffs’ expert, Waldon, declared that “[f]or the safety of the users and in order to minimize injury, it is important that a safety zone behind the treadmill be kept clear of other machines and obstacles so that users falling off or pushed off the rear of the treadmill do not strike such objects,” and he opined that 24 Hour’s act of placing other exercise equipment inside the safety zone “greatly increased the risk of injury to [Etelvina].” This evidence is similar to the evidence presented in Rosencrans. While Waldon did not expressly use the words “common practice” or [*557] “industry standard,” such is an inference that his declaration reasonably [***20] supports, particularly when viewed in tandem with the manufacturer’s safety directions.
(3) In our view, based on the evidence plaintiffs presented, a jury could reasonably find that (1) it is standard practice in the industry to provide a minimum six-foot safety zone behind treadmills, based on the owner’s manual, assembly guide, and Waldon’s declaration as an expert; (2) 24 Hour did not provide this minimum six-foot safety zone, as declared by Neuman; and (3) the failure to provide the minimum safety zone was an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct, as implied in Waldon’s declaration. Accordingly, plaintiffs created a triable issue of fact as to whether the failure to provide the minimum six-foot safety zone constituted an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.
While the issue of whether there has been gross negligence is generally a triable issue of fact, we recognize that such is not always the case. (See Decker, supra, 209 Cal.App.3d at p. 358.) For example, in a recent case involving 24 Hour, the Court of Appeal affirmed summary judgment grounded in part on the trial court’s determination that there was no triable issue of fact as to gross negligence. (Grebing v. 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc. (2015) 234 Cal.App.4th 631, 639 [184 Cal. Rptr. 3d 155] (Grebing).) The contrast to our [***21] case supports our conclusion that, looking at the evidence in a light most favorable to plaintiffs, there is a triable issue of fact as to gross negligence in this case.
In Grebing, the plaintiff, who had twice signed 24 Hour’s release, was injured using a low row machine, when a clip failed causing a handlebar to break free from the cable and strike him in the forehead. (Grebing, supra, 234 Cal.App.4th at p. 634.) The evidence disclosed that the clip was the wrong clip, broken, or not working for the machine on which the plaintiff was exercising. (Id. at p. 635.) Some machines in the facility were missing clips and apparently members moved clips to other machines. Fifteen minutes before the plaintiff’s injury, another member reported [**238] that a different machine had a crooked clip. (Ibid.) The court held that to the extent the plaintiff was claiming 24 Hour should have inspected and replaced broken or improper clips on all machines within the 15 minutes after the other member’s complaint, that claim was insufficient to raise a triable issue of gross negligence. (Id. at p. 639.) Further, the court noted that “it is undisputed that 24 Hour took several measures to ensure that its exercise equipment and facility were well maintained. For example, it hired [***22] a facilities technician whose job was to conduct a daily inspection of the facility and perform preventative maintenance. If the facilities technician was unavailable, 24 Hour had a practice of requiring other staff members to conduct the inspection and perform any required maintenance.” (Ibid.) The Grebing court [*558] concluded, “In view of these measures, 24 Hour’s conduct cannot reasonably be regarded as demonstrating a want of even scant care or an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.” (Ibid.)
Here, unlike in Grebing where there was no notice, 24 Hour knew it was violating the manufacturer’s express safety directions when it deliberately arranged the gym equipment without providing a six-foot safety zone for the treadmills. It can be inferred that 24 Hour did so for the purpose of placing more machines into its facility to accommodate more members to make more money. And unlike in Grebing, where 24 Hour acted reasonably by conducting daily equipment inspections, there were no mitigation measures that would have prevented the injury plaintiffs alleged occurred here. We are not persuaded by 24 Hour’s argument that because it provided shock-absorbing flooring materials, [***23] it exhibited “some care” and a jury would be precluded from finding gross negligence. A shock-absorbing floor makes little difference when it is covered with gym equipment upon which members could fall and severely injure themselves. Thus, we cannot agree that this purported mitigation measure precludes a jury finding of gross negligence.
In reaching our conclusion, we also reject 24 Hour’s argument, as adopted by the trial court, that “the provision of three to four feet of space as opposed to the recommended six feet cannot, as a matter of law, constitute gross negligence as it does not reflect ‘an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.'” The misdirected focus on the two-to-three-foot difference between 24 Hour’s spacing and the recommended minimum spacing impliedly suggests that such difference was negligible and not “an extreme departure.” However, when one thinks of the minimum safety zone recommended by the treadmill manufacturer in terms of the height of adult human beings and the high likelihood of a person falling off a treadmill impacting nearby equipment as close as three feet, it seems clear that the reduced zone established by 24 Hour here can hardly be [***24] considered a “safety” zone at all. Accordingly, it strikes us that a departure of two to three feet from the recommended minimum six-foot safety zone makes a great difference under these circumstances. Without any expert testimony indicating otherwise and in light of plaintiffs’ expert’s declaration corroborating the manufacturer’s directions and the financial motivation that can be inferred from the evidence, we cannot agree that as a matter of law, the spacing of the machines demonstrates at least scant care and is not an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.
24 Hour contends that if the facts in several cases it cites do not amount to gross negligence, then the facts in this case certainly do not. In our view, 24 Hour’s cited cases are distinguishable. [*559] [**239]
24 Hour cites Decker as a comparable case on gross negligence. In Decker, a surfer became entangled in the tether of a submerged lobster trap and drowned after the city pursued an antiquated surf rescue method, the “lifeline rescue method.” (Decker, supra, 209 Cal.App.3d at pp. 352-353, 360.) There was evidence that the rescue personnel arrived promptly and made diligent efforts to attempt to rescue the surfer both with the sheriff’s dive team and with a helicopter, [***25] but the dive team used a rescue method disfavored for surf rescues. (Id. at pp. 360-361, 363.) The court reasoned that this evidence “could support a finding that use of the lifeline rescue method is a disfavored surf rescue method and would not be used by an experienced, trained surf rescuer but it does not support a finding the sheriff’s dive team was grossly negligent for having used this method given their lack of training or experience in surf rescue.” (Id. at p. 360, italics added.) The Decker court also noted that the plaintiff did not contest the validity of the sheriff’s first rescue attempt with the helicopter, which also failed. (Id. at pp. 360-361.) The failure to train for and use a specialized rescue method during an otherwise diligent rescue effort that included another undisputed rescue method is very different from 24 Hour’s failure to follow the treadmill manufacturer’s explicit directions to maintain a minimum six-foot safety zone. The conduct in Decker was, at best, passive negligence by people who did not know any better and did not create or even increase the risk of injury whereas in our case defendant’s conduct actively created or increased the risk of injury to treadmill users by deliberately setting up the [***26] equipment in a dangerous manner.
In DeVito v. State of California (1988) 202 Cal.App.3d 264 [248 Cal. Rptr. 330] (DeVito), another case upon which 24 Hour relies, a hiker swung from a firehose hung over a tree limb in a mountain canyon on public land, lost her grip, and fell down a steep slope, sustaining injuries. The appellate court affirmed dismissal of her complaint against the state on demurrer, primarily focusing on a statute, Government Code section 831.7, which provides “a public entity is not liable to ‘any person who participates in a hazardous recreational activity … for any … injury … arising out of that … activity.'” (DeVito, at pp. 267, 270.) The court noted that under the statute, “‘tree rope swinging'” is listed as one such hazardous recreational activity, and the primary issue on appeal was one of interpreting this statute. (Ibid.) The court, in a single, short paragraph, only briefly discussed the plaintiff’s secondary argument that the state engaged in gross negligence, concluding in summary fashion that no facts alleged in the complaint supported the allegation of gross negligence. (Id. at p. 272.)
DeVito is distinguishable on several bases. First, in this case, plaintiffs here did allege facts in their summary judgment opposition which support a finding of gross negligence, as discussed [***27] ante. Second, as in Decker, the plaintiff in DeVito did not allege facts indicating that the defendant actively [*560] created or increased the risk of harm. Instead, the plaintiff alleged that the state failed to “‘guard or warn of [a] known dangerous condition,'” which would not ordinarily rise to the level of gross negligence. (DeVito, supra, 202 Cal.App.3d at pp. 267, 272.) Third, and significantly, the court’s opinion in DeVito focused on the plaintiff’s failure “to guard or warn” argument because the gross negligence argument was barely raised and not supported in the plaintiff’s argument on appeal. (See id. at p. 272.) [**240] The court noted, “We could, but choose not to, ignore this contention since it is set forth in a single sentence of appellant’s opening brief, unsupported by either argument or authority.” (Id. at fn. 7.) Accordingly, DeVito provides little analysis of the gross negligence exception to liability releases and equally little support to 24 Hour’s position.
A third case cited by 24 Hour is even less helpful. Eastburn, supra, 31 Cal.4th 1175, involved a claim of gross negligence based on a 911 operator putting the plaintiff on hold. An injured child and her parents sued, contending that the child suffered injuries because of the failure to provide prompt emergency response to [***28] the 911 call. (Id. at p. 1179.) Our high court affirmed the trial court’s finding that the plaintiffs would be unable to allege gross negligence to amend their defective complaint. (Id. at pp. 1179, 1185-1186.) On this point, the court wrote: “Plaintiffs’ briefs before the Court of Appeal made the additional allegation that the 911 dispatcher put them ‘on hold’ during their telephone conversation, but such conduct would hardly amount to gross negligence or bad faith. The case law has defined gross negligence as ‘”the want of even scant care or an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.”‘ [Citations.] Nothing in plaintiffs’ pleadings or appellate briefs points to such extreme conduct. Accordingly, the trial court properly sustained the demurrer without leave to amend.” (Id. at pp. 1185-1186.) Eastburn provides no factual analogue suitable for comparison to our case.
At oral argument, in addition to Grebing, supra, 234 Cal.App.4th 631, 24 Hour cited two other recent cases, which we also find distinguishable. In Honeycutt v. Meridian Sports Club, LLC (2014) 231 Cal.App.4th 251 [179 Cal. Rptr. 3d 473], the plaintiff sued a sports club for a knee injury she sustained while attempting a kicking maneuver in a kickboxing class taught by a personal trainer. (Id. at pp. 254-255.) The trainer attempted to correct the plaintiff’s form by holding her kicking leg while he instructed [***29] her how to pivot her planted leg. (Ibid.) To support her claim that the defendant was grossly negligent, the plaintiff presented an expert declaration asserting that “an instructor should not touch the student, and instead should demonstrate and verbalize the maneuver and regress to an easier maneuver if the kick was too difficult for the student’s skills.” (Id. at p. 259.) On appeal from summary judgment in the defendant’s favor, the Court of Appeal reasoned that there was no triable issue of fact as to gross negligence because “[a] mere [*561] difference of opinion as to how a student should be instructed does not constitute evidence of gross negligence.” (Id. at p. 260.) This strikes us as a quintessential case of, at most, ordinary negligence. Unlike our case, there was no evidence that the defendant violated something like an industry standard, or manufacturer’s safety directions or otherwise made an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.
Defendant also cited Eriksson II, supra, 233 Cal.App.4th 708 at oral argument and ignored Eriksson I. In Eriksson I, the plaintiffs’ daughter was killed in an equestrian mishap. The Court of Appeal reviewed the trial court’s ruling granting summary judgment. Looking at the evidence [***30] in a light most favorable to the plaintiffs, the court concluded that the plaintiffs produced evidence sufficient to support a jury finding [**241] that a riding coach was grossly negligent in persuading the mother to allow her daughter to compete in an equestrian competition on a recently injured and unfit horse. (Eriksson I, supra, 191 Cal.App.4th at p. 857.) Following a remand for trial, the trial court entered judgment after the plaintiffs’ case-in-chief. The trial court found, based on the trial evidence, that the defendant’s conduct did not rise to the level of gross negligence. (Eriksson II, at p. 718.) On review, the Court of Appeal reasoned that because the defendant “established the validity of the release in the sense that it was binding and enforceable against [the plaintiffs],” the plaintiffs then had the burden of establishing that the defendant was grossly negligent in their case-in-chief at trial. (Id. at pp. 733-734.) Based on this procedural posture, the Eriksson II court applied a deferential standard of review (as opposed to the de novo review of the summary judgment in Eriksson I). The court “review[ed] the record to determine whether the evidence establishe[d], as a matter of law” that the defendant was grossly negligent. (Id. at p. 734, italics added.) The court determined [***31] that the plaintiffs failed to meet this burden at trial; however, it did not publish the portion of the opinion analyzing why the trial evidence failed to establish that the defendant was grossly negligent as a matter of law. (Ibid.) Accordingly, the case is of little utility to 24 Hour. In any event, due to the vastly different procedural posture and deferential standard of review, Eriksson II is distinguishable from our case. Indeed, the court in Eriksson I, citing Santa Barbara, noted that in the context of a summary judgment motion, the defendant bears the burden of establishing the validity of a release “as applied to the case at hand.” (Eriksson I, at p. 856, italics omitted, quoting Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 780, fn. 58.) And as we have noted, our high court held that [HN10] a release from liability for gross negligence is invalid and unenforceable. (Santa Barbara, at pp. 750-751.) Thus, the opinion in Eriksson I is far more instructive where the Court of Appeal reversed the summary judgment in the defendant’s favor, reasoning that the plaintiffs showed there were material issues of fact as to whether the defendant was grossly negligent. (Eriksson I, at p. 857.) [*562]
In the trial court, 24 Hour did not explicitly dispute plaintiffs’ separate statement of facts in [***32] its moving papers; instead it opted to object to most of plaintiffs’ facts instead. On appeal, 24 Hour repeatedly disputed plaintiffs’ factual allegations in its brief. Specifically, defendant makes much of the fact that Etelvina cannot remember her fall, contending there is no “evidence that she actually fell backwards off of a moving treadmill.” However, this argument ignores plaintiffs’ expert declarations opining what likely happened to Etelvina based on her injuries, the location of her fall, and accident reconstruction. Although 24 Hour’s factual presentation in its briefing does not view the facts in the light most favorable to plaintiffs, we must do so. And while the experts’ opinions may or may not be credible at trial, this is an inherently factual issue for a jury to decide.5
5 24 Hour notes its objections to plaintiffs’ evidence and contends that these expert opinions are inadmissible. However, the trial court overruled 24 Hour’s evidentiary objections, and 24 Hour does not challenge this ruling on appeal. Accordingly, this argument is forfeited. (Salehi v. Surfside III Condominium Owners Assn. (2011) 200 Cal.App.4th 1146, 1161-1162 [132 Cal. Rptr. 3d 886].)
[**242] We emphasize that “we are not passing judgment upon the merits of plaintiffs’ allegations; rather, we are viewing the allegations [***33] in the light most favorable to plaintiffs, as required by the law.” (Rosencrans, supra, 192 Cal.App.4th at p. 1089.) A jury may very well conclude that Etelvina was not injured in the manner alleged, that there was no industry standard on treadmill safety clearances, and that 24 Hour’s conduct did not rise to the level of gross negligence, but we are unwilling to reach these conclusions as a matter of law based on the record before us. In a case involving disputes of fact such as how and where Etelvina fell and whether there is an industry standard on treadmill safety zones, summary judgment is a “drastic remedy.” (Mateel Environmental Justice Foundation v. Edmund A. Gray Co. (2003) 115 Cal.App.4th 8, 17 [9 Cal. Rptr. 3d 486].) Accordingly, we conclude that the trial court erred in ruling that plaintiffs did not present a triable issue of fact regarding whether 24 Hour engaged in gross negligence.
III. Fraud and Misrepresentation
A. The Parties’ Contentions
Plaintiffs contend that there are triable issues of fact as to whether 24 Hour obtained Etelvina’s signature on the liability release through fraud and misrepresentation, which would invalidate the release as to all of plaintiffs’ theories of recovery. In the trial court, plaintiffs presented the declarations of Etelvina and her sister, another 24 Hour member, testifying that before they [***34] signed their respective releases, the 24 Hour employees misrepresented and concealed the contents of the agreements. Specifically, Etelvina declared that [*563] Wilbourn gestured and pointed to represent that the agreement was to pay a certain amount of money per month for the gym membership and that she relied on that representation when she signed the release. However, the trial court ruled that plaintiffs presented “no evidence that Mr. Wilbourn made any affirmative representations that led [Etelvina] to believe she was signing something other than what the agreement, on its face, purported to be.”
On appeal, plaintiffs argue that 24 Hour failed to conclusively establish the enforceability of the release because they produced evidence that Wilbourn did not act in good faith and made affirmative misrepresentations to Etelvina through nonverbal gestures and by pointing to the monthly payment amount on his computer screen. Additionally, plaintiffs point out Wilbourn violated his own policy as the membership manager of referring Spanish-speaking customers to sign up with Spanish-speaking employees.6 24 Hour responds that it owed no duty to translate or explain the agreement to Etelvina, and [***35] the material facts alleged by plaintiffs do not raise a triable issue of whether Wilbourn misrepresented the contents of the agreement.
6 Plaintiffs repeatedly refer to this as a 24 Hour policy, but citations to Wilbourn’s deposition reveal that the questions directed toward him and his answers related to what he did and his habit and custom.
(4) ” [HN11] A release may negate the duty element of a negligence action.” (Benedek v. PLC Santa Monica (2002) 104 Cal.App.4th 1351, 1356 [129 Cal. Rptr. 2d 197].) As we have noted, in order to absolve itself of responsibility for any ordinary negligence, it was 24 Hour’s burden to establish the validity of the release “as [**243] applied to the case at hand.” (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 780, fn. 58; see Eriksson I, supra, 191 Cal.App.4th at p. 856.)
Generally, a person who signs an instrument may not avoid the impact of its terms on the ground that she failed to read it before signing. (Randas, supra, 17 Cal.App.4th at p. 163.) However, a release is invalid when it is procured by misrepresentation, overreaching, deception, or fraud. (Ibid.) “It has often been held that if the releaser was under a misapprehension, not due to his own neglect, as to the nature or scope of the release, and if this misapprehension was induced by the misconduct of the releasee, then the release, regardless of how comprehensively worded, is binding only to the extent actually [***36] intended by the releaser.” (Casey v. Proctor (1963) 59 Cal.2d 97, 103 [28 Cal. Rptr. 307, 378 P.2d 579], fn. omitted.) “In cases providing the opportunity for overreaching, the releasee has a duty to act in good faith and the releaser must have a full understanding of his legal rights. [Citations.] Furthermore, it is the province of the jury to determine whether the circumstances afforded the opportunity for overreaching, whether the releasee [*564] engaged in overreaching and whether the releaser was misled. [Citation.]” (Frusetta v. Hauben (1990) 217 Cal.App.3d 551, 558 [266 Cal. Rptr. 62] (Frusetta).) A “strong showing of misconduct” by the plaintiff is not necessary to demonstrate the existence of a triable issue of fact here; only a “‘slight showing'” is required. (Id. at pp. 559-560.)
(5) Here, if a jury were to be persuaded that Wilbourn made misrepresentations to Etelvina about the contents of the agreement by making nonverbal gestures indicating that what she was signing related only to being allowed to exercise if she paid the price on the computer screen, it would be entitled to find that Etelvina’s signature on the release was produced by misrepresentation and that the release is not enforceable against her. (See Seeger v. Odell (1941) 18 Cal.2d 409, 414 [115 P.2d 977] [one [HN12] who has been induced by fraudulent misrepresentations to sign agreement is entitled to have agreement set aside]; Blankenheim v. E. F. Hutton & Co. (1990) 217 Cal.App.3d 1463, 1474 [266 Cal. Rptr. 593] [same]; see [***37] also American T. Co. v. California etc. Ins. Co. (1940) 15 Cal.2d 42, 65 [98 P.2d 497] [“Regardless of whether one is under a duty to speak or disclose facts, one who does speak must speak the whole truth, and not by partial suppression or concealment make the utterance untruthful and misleading.”].) Thus, we must determine whether, with all facts and inferences construed in plaintiffs’ favor, the conduct shown by plaintiffs’ evidence could be found to constitute fraud. If so, then it is a question of fact for the jury to determine whether the release in this case was ineffective.
In Frusetta, a personal injury case, the plaintiff asserted that an insurance adjuster who worked for Twentieth Century Insurance Company told her that a preprinted check was to be a partial payment for injuries she suffered in a car accident, and the adjuster represented to her that another payment would be forthcoming. (Frusetta, supra, 217 Cal.App.3d at p. 554.) The check included the words, “‘Bodily injury in full and final settlement.'” (Ibid.) The reverse of the check stated that if “‘”Full and Final Settlement” is printed on the front of the draft, endorsement of the draft constitutes a full Release of all claims known or unanticipated which the under-signed has or may hereafter have against the Payor … .'” (Ibid.) The plaintiff endorsed [***38] and cashed the check, and Twentieth [**244] Century claimed that by doing so, she released it from any further liability. (Id. at pp. 554-555.) The Frusetta court reasoned, “it is clearly possible that a jury might find the circumstances demonstrated fraud or overreaching on the part of Twentieth Century. If a jury accepted [the plaintiff’s] testimony a Twentieth Century adjuster stated to her the check was a partial settlement and the rest would be paid later, then it might be found Twentieth Century violated its duty to act in good faith.” (Id. at p. 558.) Accordingly, the court held there was a triable issue of fact as to whether “a [*565] fraud or misrepresentation … induced a party’s signing of a release ‘[where] it substantially contribute[d] to his decision to manifest his assent.'” (Id. at pp. 556-557.)
A recent Ninth Circuit case applying California law, Doe v. Gangland Productions, Inc. (9th Cir. 2013) 730 F.3d 946 (Gangland), is also instructive. There, the plaintiff sued two production companies for broadcasting a television documentary without concealing his identity. (Id. at pp. 951-952.) In an anti-SLAPP motion to strike the complaint, among other arguments, the defendants contended that the plaintiff’s claims were barred because he signed a release consenting to disclosure of his real identity in the broadcast [***39] and waiving all claims for liability. (Id. at pp. 957-958.) In order to overcome the anti-SLAPP motion, the plaintiff had to demonstrate a probability of prevailing on the merits of his claims. (Id. at p. 957.) In a declaration, the plaintiff stated that he was dyslexic, illiterate, and that he informed the Gangland producer who asked him to sign the release that he had “‘extreme difficulty reading.'” (Id. at p. 952.) The plaintiff also stated that “when he was provided the alleged release, [the producer] told him it was ‘just a receipt’ for his $300 payment for the interview. Because of these representations, [the plaintiff] did not ask his girlfriend to read out loud the document before he signed it.” (Id. at p. 958.) The court reasoned that the plaintiff “made a sufficient showing of fraud in the execution of the release, which, if true, would render the release void.” (Ibid.)
In reaching its conclusion, the court in Gangland cited Mairo v. Yellow Cab Co. (1929) 208 Cal. 350 [281 P. 66]. In Mairo, the California Supreme Court reviewed a directed verdict in the defendant’s favor, where the trial court concluded that the plaintiff had waived his rights by executing several releases. (Id. at pp. 351-352.) The plaintiff was an illiterate Russian immigrant who understood little spoken English. (Id. [***40] at p. 351.) He was injured after being hit by the defendant’s taxicab and during the course of his medical treatment, the defendant had him sign several releases in exchange for the payment of his medical treatment. (Id. at pp. 351-352.) The plaintiff asserted that the defendant misrepresented the true contents of the releases and that he believed they were merely a permit to operate on him and receipts. (Id. at p. 352.) The court held that if the true nature of the releases was “misrepresented to [the plaintiff] so that he did not know what he was really signing, they are, of course, void. But under the conflicting evidence here it is impossible to tell whether such was the fact. This also was an issue which should have gone to the jury and it was, therefore, erroneous for the trial court to direct said verdict for defendant.” (Ibid.; see Meyer v. Haas (1899) 126 Cal. 560, 562 [58 P. 1042] [holding that a release was void where the releaser could not read English and understood little spoken English, and the releasee “did not convey full information as to [the release’s] contents”].) [*566]
[**245] Defendant dismisses the application of Frusetta and other cases where there was “affirmative misrepresentation or fraud” regarding the nature or character of the document in question, [***41] because here there was no verbal misrepresentation. However, in our view, this is a distinction without a difference. 24 Hour contends that these nonverbal communications cannot, as a matter of law, amount to affirmative misrepresentations because Etelvina “could not reasonably have relied upon anything Mr. Wilbourn said” since he spoke a different language. 24 Hour’s argument implies that nonverbal communications cannot be misrepresentative or induce reasonable reliance. We reject this argument. While it may be less reasonable for a plaintiff to rely on nonverbal communications in a case where the parties speak the same language, in this case, gesturing was virtually the only form of communication between Wilbourn and Etelvina. It is undisputed that Etelvina did not speak English and Wilbourn did not speak Spanish. Further, Wilbourn knew Etelvina did not speak or read English. And he knew that Etelvina did not read the contract, including the terms setting forth the release, even though, as the membership manager, he must have known that the release says, “By signing below, you acknowledge and agree that you have read the foregoing …” provisions of the release. (Italics added.) Under [***42] these circumstances, already ripe for misrepresentation and overreaching, Wilbourn’s gestures and pointing may very well have misrepresented the nature of the document Etelvina signed. This is an inherently factual question for a jury to decide. (See Jordan v. Guerra (1943) 23 Cal.2d 469, 475 [144 P.2d 349] [“[I]t [HN13] is for the trier of the facts to determine what the plaintiff understood was covered by the writing and whether his understanding different from the writing was induced by the defendant.”].)
24 Hour relies heavily on Randas, supra, 17 Cal.App.4th 158, arguing that under Randas, a case involving a release signed by a person who did not speak English, it had no duty to translate or explain the membership agreement to Etelvina and that Etelvina had no one to blame but herself. Randas does not help 24 Hour because there was no claim of fraud or overreaching in that case and the releasee had no reason to think the releaser could not read the release. Indeed, the Randas court made a point of those circumstances, specifically noting, “Appellant made no claim of respondent’s fraud or overreaching. Nor did appellant claim that respondent had reason to suspect she did not or could not read the release she had signed and which in full captions above and below her signature stated: [***43] ‘I Have Read This Release.'” (Id. at p. 163.) Here, plaintiffs’ theory is fraud and overreaching. And it is clear that Wilbourn knew Etelvina could not and did not read the release.
Accordingly, we reverse the trial court’s ruling on this basis as well. [*567]
IV. Foreseeability That 24 Hour Would Intentionally Increase the Risk of Danger
On appeal, plaintiffs also contend that the release is unenforceable because a release only encompasses risks that are foreseeable at the time it is signed, and it was not reasonably foreseeable that 24 Hour would intentionally increase the risk of danger to its treadmill users. However, plaintiffs did not pursue this argument below in either their opposition to the summary judgment motion or during oral argument on the motion. Additionally, plaintiffs did not allege that 24 Hour engaged in intentional conduct in their complaint or raise undisputed facts pertaining [**246] to this foreseeability theory in their separate statement of facts. Accordingly, we decline to consider this argument for the first time on appeal. (See Greenwich S.F., LLC v. Wong (2010) 190 Cal.App.4th 739, 767 [118 Cal. Rptr. 3d 531] [reasoning that [HN14] generally, theories not raised in the trial court cannot be asserted for the first time on appeal, particularly where it is unclear whether [***44] the theory raises a pure question of law].)
The judgment is reversed. 24 Hour shall pay plaintiffs’ costs on appeal. (See Cal. Rules of Court, rule 8.278(a)(1) & (5).)
Blease, Acting P. J., and Hull, J., concurred.
Great program to help us and the parks.
Here is the statement from the NPS website.
What is Healthy Parks Healthy People US?
Healthy Parks Healthy People US is a holistic approach to promoting the health and well-being of people and the sustainability of the planet.
Healthy Parks, Healthy People US is a National Park Service initiative working to reintegrate human, environmental and ecological health into the mission of public parks and public lands. Although Healthy Parks Healthy People US is based within the National Park Service, it works with national, state, and local parks, as well as business innovators, healthcare leaders, scientists, foundations and advocacy organizations to foster the health-related role that parks can and do play in our society.
It’s a great idea, I hope it works.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
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Basics of the Article are Good – But it confuses certification, accreditation and most importantly standards.Posted: May 28, 2009
This article has a great example about why creating standards is a liability or noose for any industry. The article has the following quote:
Of course the term that caught my eye was “high accreditation standards”. Granted the combination of accreditation and standards can be
confusing but the simple fact is creating high standards creates lawsuits. Standards are not goals or operational levels but the lowest acceptable level of operation. If you have an accreditation (marketing) program in your industry, make sure you don’t confuse helping a member achieve a level of business to market itself to the public (accreditation) and the operational levels below which you have violated a duty to someone (a standard).
The article was written in response to attempts by several states to create statutory requirements for personal trainers. At present there are none. There are certification programs seemingly dozens of programs. However a certification is only as strong as the person teaching the course offering the certification. Here certification is also being used to market the level of competence of the person holding the certification rather than proof of education. This seems to be the general evolution in the minds of the public, promulgated by marketing programs to have the word certification mean more.
And I agree and doubt that any state government can do a good job of certifying anyone in the personal training market. The statute will be very watered down. (This from someone who lives in a state where anyone can be a licensed therapist, you need $15!)
The article also brings up the issue that certification can be provided by anyone. You can become a certified personal trainer by completing online courses. I would want my personal trainer to know a lot, and getting that education online is OK. But I would think that stretching, lifting and aerobics would require a little more effort to learn than what you can do with a keyboard and screen.
Again, it does not matter what the certification is, it only matters who issued the certification and what was taught and/or tested.
I’ve have always said that lawsuits start when marketing makes promises that operations cannot meet. Here again, marketing of programs has started a nightmare that will come back to haunt the industry if they do not get organized and stop.
See Certification Update: Self-Regulation at Risk, and Attacking Industry Standards,