New Jersey holds that if you signed the release, you are held to its terms even if you cannot read English.

There was a ton of issues that in many states might have voided the release, 8 pt font, missing initial and the plaintiff not understanding English were just a few of them.

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

State: New Jersey, United States District Court, D. New Jersey

Plaintiff: Soon Ja Kang

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

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: for the Defendant

Year: 2016

Summary

If you sign the membership agreement containing a release in New Jersey, you are held to the terms of the release, even if you can’t speak or read English. Plaintiff could not read or speak English, signed LA Fitness membership agreement and could not sue after she was injured on a piece of equipment.

Facts

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. On December 30, 2013, plaintiff Soon Ja Kang went to LA Fitness with her husband to sign up for membership.

On December 31, 2013, Kang was injured while working out on a chin/dip assist pull up machine at LA Fitness’s Piscataway location. 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. 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.

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

The court started its analysis by looking at the release and the injury the plaintiff suffered. The court found the injury fell within the confines of the release.

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.

The issue then became whether or not the release applied to someone who did not speak or read English. Releases in New Jersey are enforceable 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.

The court throughout the third factor because the defendant was not a public utility or common carrier. The court then reviewed whether the exculpatory clause affected the public interest. The court found it did not.

[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.

There seemed to be somewhat of a limit to the release based on the courts next comment about the reach of the release.

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.

The plaintiff then argued the release violates the New Jersey Plain Language Act. N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-2. The act requires a consumer contract to be “written in a simple, clear, understandable and easily readable way.”

The plaintiff then argued the act was violated because the print size (font) was 8 points, and the margins of the paper were .5″ “reflecting the intentions of the drafter to squeeze in additional words.”

Reviewing examples of bad language found in the act, the court determined the release did not violate the Plain Language Act.

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.

The next issue was there any legal duty to perform on the part of the defendant part 2 of the four requirements.

There were no state statutes or regulation’s setting standards for fitness facilities. The plaintiff argued that National Associations had created standards that applied to fitness facilities. However, the court could not find that to be valid. “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.”

The final argument was the release was unconscionable because of unequal bargaining power between the plaintiff and defendant.

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.

The court did not agree with any of the plaintiffs’ arguments. And stated in clear language that the plaintiff’s inability to speak English did not stop her from becoming bound to the terms of the release.

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:

The court went on to explain that if you sign the agreement, you are bound to the terms of the agreement, whether or not you understood the agreement.

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.

The final issue was the missing initial in the document. Because she had signed the agreement, the signature at the bottom of the agreement was all that was needed for the release to be valid.

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.

The plaintiff then argued the release and fitness contract containing the release were unconscionable. The court summed up the plaintiffs’ unconscionable argument as an amalgamation of all of her other arguments. The court found the exculpatory clause did not offend public policy, and the other arguments for unconscionability did not change the release validity.

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.

The motion for summary judgment of the defendant was granted the plaintiff’s claims dismissed.

So Now What?

New Jersey is another state that upholds the idea that if you sign a release, you are bound to the terms of the release no matter if you could understand the release, the type was too small; you did not read or speak English, or you just want out of the release.

At the same time, this list from my studies has only two states on it, California being the other state. See Balloon ride in California is not a common carrier, and the release signed by the plaintiff bars the plaintiff’s claims even though she did not read or speak English.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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

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

Soon Ja Kang Plaintiff,

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

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

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

December 29, 2016

NOT FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

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

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

I. Background

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

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

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

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

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

The Court makes its decision on the paper.

II. Discussion

A. Standard

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

B. Analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(1) Cross references that are confusing;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(1) Sections shall be logically divided and captioned;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

a. Mutual Assent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

b. Unconscionability

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

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

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

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

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

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

III. Conclusion

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


What happens if you fail to follow the requirements of your insurance policy and do not get a release signed? In New Hampshire, you have no coverage.

You either have to create an absolutely fool proof system or take your release
online. If they don’t sign they don’t climb!

Colony Insurance Company v. Dover Indoor Climbing Gym & a., 158 N.H. 628; 974 A.2d
399; 2009 N.H. LEXIS 51

State: New Hampshire, Supreme Court of New Hampshire

Plaintiff: Colony Insurance Company

Defendant: Dover Indoor Climbing Gym& a.

Plaintiff Claims: There was no insurance coverage because the insured did not get a release signed by the injured claimant

Defendant Defenses: The insurance policy endorsement requiring a release to be signed was ambiguous

Holding: For the Plaintiff Insurance Company

Year: 2009

This is a scary case, yet the outcome is correct. The plaintiff insurance company issued a policy to the defendant climbing gym. An endorsement (an added amendment to the contract) to the policy said there would only be coverage if the gym all customers sign a release.

 An endorsement to the policy stated: “All ‘participants’ shall be required to sign a waiver or release of liability in
your favor prior to engaging in any ‘climbing activity.’ “It further stated: “Failure to conform to this warranty will render this policy null and void as [sic] those claims brought against you.”

A climber came to the gym with a group of friends. The gym asked everyone if they had a release on file, and no one said no. (Yes really stupid procedures!) Bigelow was part of the group and did not have a release on file and had not signed a release. While climbing Bigelow fell and was injured.

Bigelow accompanied friends to the climbing gym, but did not sign a waiver. He testified that he was never asked to sign a waiver; the gym owner’s affidavit stated that the owner asked the group of climbers if they had waivers on file and received no negative answers. It is undisputed; however, that Bigelow did not sign a waiver or release. While climbing, Bigelow fell and sustained serious injuries.

The defendant climbing gym put the plaintiff insurance company on notice of the claim. When the insurance company found out no release was signed, the insurance company filed a declaratory judgment motion. A declaratory judgment is a way to go into a court and say there is no coverage under this policy because there was no release. It is an attempt to be a quick interpretation of the contract so the bigger issue can be resolved quickly.

The gym then put Colony on notice to defend and pay any verdict obtained by Bigelow. In response, Colony filed a petition for declaratory judgment, arguing that the gym’s failure to obtain a release from Bigelow absolved Colony of any duty to defend or indemnify the gym.

Both parties filed motions for summary judgment. The trial court granted the climbing gym’s motion for summary judgment saying the endorsement requiring the signed release was ambiguous. The ambiguity was created because the insurance company had not provided the gym with a sample waiver to use.

The trial court found that Colony’s failure to provide the gym with a sample waiver rendered the endorsement provision ambiguous. The trial court therefore denied Colony’s motion for summary judgment, and granted the defendants’ cross-motion for summary judgment. 

This analysis by the court was absurd. Releases need to be written for the gym, for the gym’s clients and for the state law of the state where it is to be used. A “sample” release is a guaranteed loser in most cases. However, I suspect the court was looking for anyway it could find to provide coverage for the gym.

The trial court’s ruling meant the plaintiff insurance company had to provide coverage to the defendant for any claims made by the injured climber Bigelow.

The insurance company appealed the decision. New Hampshire does not have an intermediary appellate court system so the appeal went to the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

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

Insurance policies are contracts and are interpreted as such. However, because have been written in a specific way and are always offered on a take it or leave it basis, as well as the fact the insurance company has all the cards (money) insurance policies have additional legal interpretations in addition to contract law.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court started its analysis by looking at how insurance policies are interpreted. That means the policy is read as a whole objectively. Terms are given their natural meaning, meaning there is no special interpretation of any term, and if the policy is clear and unambiguous is it enforced. No special reading of the policy is allowed based on any party to the policy’s expectations.

We construe the language of an insurance policy as would a reasonable person in the position of the insured based upon a more than casual reading of the policy as a whole. Policy terms are construed objectively, and where the terms of a policy are clear and unambiguous, we accord the language its natural and ordinary meaning. We need not examine the parties’ reasonable expectations of coverage when a policy is clear and unambiguous; absent ambiguity, our search for the parties’ intent is limited to the words of the policy.

The burden of proving that no insurance coverage exists as defined by the policy rests on the insurance company. That means coverage exists under the policy unless the insurance company can prove no coverage was written.

If an insurance company wants to limit its coverage, it is allowed to do so. However, that limitation must be clear and unambiguous. An ambiguity exists if a reasonable disagreement exists between the insurance company and the policyholder and that disagreement could lead to two or more, interpretations.

Although an insurer has a right to contractually limit the extent of its liability, it must do so “through clear and unambiguous policy language. Ambiguity exists if “reasonable disagreement between contracting parties” leads to at least two interpretations of the language. 

Ambiguities will be examined in the appropriate context and the words construed in their plain, ordinary and popular meaning. If the interpretation of the ambiguity favors the policyholder, then the coverage will favor the insured.

In determining whether an ambiguity exists, we will look to the claimed ambiguity, consider it in its appropriate context, and construe the words used according to their plain, ordinary, and popular definitions. If one of the reasonable meanings of the language favors the policyholder, the ambiguity will be construed against the insurer. 

If, however, the language in the policy is clear, the court will not bend over backward or as written in this case “perform amazing feats of linguistic gymnastics” to find an ambiguity and create coverage.

Where, however, the policy language is clear, this court “will not perform amazing feats of linguistic gymnastics to find a purported ambiguity” simply to construe the policy against the insurer and create coverage where it is clear that none was intended. 

The court then looked at the determination of the trial court which found an ambiguity because the insurance company did not provide a sample insurance policy. The Supreme Court found that was an incorrect interpretation of the policy. Even the defendant climbing gym agreed with the court on this
issue.

Even the gym, however, contends that the trial court “reached the correct result for the wrong reasons.” Thus, the gym does not argue that the endorsement creates an ambiguity by its failure to provide the insured with a sample waiver form, but, rather, that the exclusionary language is ambiguous because it states that participants shall “be required” to sign waivers as opposed to mandating that the gym obtain signed waivers.  

The court then applied to the law of New Hampshire in interpreting insurance policies to the facts of this case. The court found the language requiring a release was clear and that a reasonable person could only read it.

The clear meaning of the policy language is that the gym is required to actually obtain waivers from climbing participants. The gym’s interpretation would lead to the absurd result of requiring coverage even if the gym never actually enforced its waiver policy. A reasonable person reading the policy would not understand that coverage existed in such circumstances. The gym’s interpretation is unreasonably narrow, and is therefore not the type of alternative interpretation that renders policy language ambiguous.

Simply put the policy requires the defendant climbing gym to have everyone sign a release. If no release is signed, there was no coverage for the gym. The trial court was overturned, and the climbing gym faced the claims of the injured climber without insurance coverage.

So Now What?

One of the first cases I was involved with was very similar. A Montana stable was insured by an insurance company with an endorsement just as this one; all riders were required to sign a release. In Montana all guides, including horseback guides had to be licensed by the state. A state employee was checking out the
stable and found the releases. In Montana, you cannot use a release. (See States that do not Support the Use of a Release andMontana Statute Prohibits Use of a Release)

The state employee had the stable quit using the release, or they would lose their license to operate in Montana. A rider was injured and sued the stable, and the insurance company denied coverage. I was contacted by the law firm representing the insurance company and was floored by the facts and how the insurance company could deny coverage when it violated state regulations.

However, in that situation as well as this one, there is not much you can do to get around the situation if the policy clearly states you must have a release signed. In the Montana case, the stable owner should have immediately contacted his insurance company when he was told he could not use a release and pay to have the endorsement removed or found another insurance company to write him a policy.

In this case, a proper procedure should have been put in place to confirm signed releases rather than relying on the honesty of someone walking through the doors to the gym.

When you purchase insurance make sure you and your insurance agent are speaking clearly to each other, and you both understand what you are looking for. When the policy arrives, read the policy or pay a professional to read the policy for you looking for the coverage’s you need as well as looking for problems with the coverage.

If you ask the agent or broker to clarify the coverage you are wanting, to make sure you get that clarification in writing (or an email), so you can take that to court if necessary.

Most importantly create a system to make sure that everyone who comes to your facility, activity or business when you use a release, signs a release.

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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Colony Insurance Company v. Dover Indoor Climbing Gym, 158 N.H. 628; 974 A.2d 399; 2009 N.H. LEXIS 51

Colony Insurance Company v. Dover Indoor Climbing Gym & a., 158 N.H. 628; 974 A.2d 399; 2009 N.H. LEXIS 51

Colony Insurance Company v. Dover Indoor Climbing Gym & a.

No. 2008-759

SUPREME COURT OF NEW HAMPSHIRE

158 N.H. 628; 974 A.2d 399; 2009 N.H. LEXIS 51

March 18, 2009, Argued

April 24, 2009, Opinion Issued

HEADNOTES NEW HAMPSHIRE OFFICIAL REPORTS HEADNOTES

1. Insurance–Policies–Construction The interpretation of insurance policy language is a question of law for the court to decide. The court construes the language of an insurance policy as would a reasonable person in the position of the insured based upon a more than casual reading of the policy as a whole. Policy terms are construed objectively, and where the terms of a policy are clear and unambiguous, the court accords the language its natural and ordinary meaning. The court need not examine the parties’ reasonable expectations of coverage when a policy is clear and unambiguous; absent ambiguity, the court’s search for the parties’ intent is limited to the words of the policy.

2. Insurance–Proceedings–Burden of Proof The burden of proving that no insurance coverage exists rests squarely with the insurer.

3. Insurance–Policies–Ambiguities Although an insurer has a right to contractually limit the extent of its liability, it must do so through clear and unambiguous policy language. Ambiguity exists if reasonable disagreement between contracting parties leads to at least two interpretations of the language. In determining whether an ambiguity exists, the court will look to the claimed ambiguity, consider it in its appropriate context, and construe the words used according to their plain, ordinary, and popular definitions. If one of the reasonable meanings of the language favors the policyholder, the ambiguity will be construed against the insurer. Where, however, the policy language is clear, the court will not perform amazing feats of linguistic gymnastics to find a purported ambiguity simply to construe the policy against the insurer and create coverage where it is clear that none was intended.

4. Insurance–Policies–Construction When a climbing gym’s insurance policy stated, “All participants shall be required to sign a waiver or release of liability in your favor prior to engaging in any climbing activity,” the clear meaning of the policy language was that the gym was required to actually obtain waivers from climbing participants. The gym’s interpretation that a reasonable person would believe that coverage existed so long as the gym had a policy of requiring waivers regardless of whether it actually obtained waivers would lead to the absurd result of requiring coverage even if the gym never actually enforced its waiver policy. A reasonable person reading the policy would not understand that coverage existed in such circumstances. Because the policy required the gym to obtain waivers from all participants, the failure to do so in the case of an injured climber rendered coverage under the policy inapplicable to his claims.

COUNSEL: Wiggin & Nourie, P.A., of Manchester (Doreen F. Connor on the brief and orally), for the plaintiff.

Mallory & Friedman, PLLC, of Concord (Mark L. Mallory on the brief and orally), for defendant, Dover Indoor Climbing Gym.

Shaheen & Gordon, P.A., of Dover, for defendant, Richard Bigelow, filed no brief.

JUDGES: DUGGAN, J. BRODERICK, C.J., and DALIANIS, J., concurred.

OPINION BY: DUGGAN

OPINION

[**400]   [*629]  Duggan, J. The plaintiff, Colony Insurance Company (Colony), appeals an order of the Superior Court (McHugh, J.) denying its motion for summary judgment and granting that of the defendants, Dover Indoor Climbing Gym (the gym) and Richard Bigelow. We reverse and remand.

The trial court found, or the record supports, the following facts. Colony issued a commercial general liability insurance policy to the gym, which was in effect from January 5, 2007, to January 5, 2008. An endorsement to the policy stated: “All ‘participants’ shall be required to sign a waiver or release of liability in your favor prior to engaging in any ‘climbing activity.’ ” It further stated: “Failure to conform to this warranty will render this policy null and void as [sic] those claims brought against you.”

On August 14, 2007,  [***2] Bigelow accompanied friends to the climbing gym, but did not sign a waiver. He testified that he was never asked to sign a waiver; the gym owner’s affidavit stated that the owner asked the group of climbers if they had waivers on file and received no negative answers. It is undisputed, however, that Bigelow did not sign a waiver or release. While climbing, Bigelow fell and sustained serious injuries. The gym then put Colony on notice to defend and pay any verdict obtained by Bigelow. In response, Colony filed a petition for declaratory judgment, arguing that the gym’s failure to obtain a release from Bigelow absolved Colony of any duty to defend or indemnify the gym.

Both Colony and the defendants filed motions for summary judgment, which the trial court addressed in a written order. The trial court found that Colony’s failure to provide the gym with a sample waiver rendered the endorsement provision ambiguous. The trial court therefore denied Colony’s motion for summary judgment, and granted the defendants’ cross-motion  [**401]  for summary judgment. This appeal followed.

[*630]  On appeal, Colony argues that the trial court erred in finding that the endorsement was ambiguous, and contends that the  [***3] gym’s failure to obtain a waiver from Bigelow renders the policy inapplicable as to his claims. Alternatively, Colony argues that even if the endorsement is ambiguous, the gym is not entitled to coverage because it had actual knowledge of the policy’s waiver requirement.

[HN1] In reviewing the trial court’s grant or denial of summary judgment, we consider the evidence, and all inferences properly drawn from it, in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Everitt v. Gen. Elec. Co., 156 N.H. 202, 208, 932 A.2d 831 (2007); Sintros v. Hamon, 148 N.H. 478, 480, 810 A.2d 553 (2002). If there is no genuine issue of material fact, and if the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, the grant of summary judgment is proper. Everitt, 156 N.H. at 209; Sintros, 148 N.H. at 480. We review the trial court’s application of the law to the facts de novo. Everitt, 156 N.H. at 209; Sintros, 148 N.H. at 480.

[1]  [HN2] The interpretation of insurance policy language is a question of law for this court to decide. Godbout v. Lloyd’s Ins. Syndicates, 150 N.H. 103, 105, 834 A.2d 360 (2003). We construe the language of an insurance policy as would a reasonable person in the position of the insured based upon a more than casual reading  [***4] of the policy as a whole. Id. Policy terms are construed objectively, and where the terms of a policy are clear and unambiguous, we accord the language its natural and ordinary meaning. Id. We need not examine the parties’ reasonable expectations of coverage when a policy is clear and unambiguous; absent ambiguity, our search for the parties’ intent is limited to the words of the policy. Id.

[2, 3] In this case, the gym argues that the policy is ambiguous and Colony maintains that it is not.  [HN3] The burden of proving that no insurance coverage exists rests squarely with the insurer. Curtis v. Guaranty Trust Life Ins. Co., 132 N.H. 337, 340, 566 A.2d 176 (1989); see RSA 491:22-a (1997).  [HN4] Although an insurer has a right to contractually limit the extent of its liability, it must do so “through clear and unambiguous policy language.” Id. (quotation omitted). Ambiguity exists if “reasonable disagreement between contracting parties” leads to at least two interpretations of the language. Int’l Surplus Lines Ins. Co. v. Mfgs. & Merchants Mut. Ins. Co., 140 N.H. 15, 20, 661 A.2d 1192 (1995); Trombly v. Blue Cross/Blue Shield, 120 N.H. 764, 771, 423 A.2d 980 (1980). In determining whether an ambiguity exists, we will look to the claimed ambiguity,  [***5] consider it in its appropriate context, and construe the words used according to their plain, ordinary, and popular definitions. Int’l Surplus, 140 N.H. at 20. If one of the reasonable meanings of the language favors the policyholder, the ambiguity will be construed against the insurer. Id. Where, however, the policy language is clear, this court “will not  [*631]  perform amazing feats of linguistic gymnastics to find a purported ambiguity” simply to construe the policy against the insurer and create coverage where it is clear that none was intended. Hudson v. Farm Family Mut. Ins. Co., 142 N.H. 144, 147, 697 A.2d 501 (1997); Curtis, 132 N.H. at 342.

The trial court found that the endorsement requiring waivers is ambiguous because Colony did not provide the gym with a sample waiver. Even the gym, however, contends that the trial court “reached the  [**402]  correct result for the wrong reasons.” Thus, the gym does not argue that the endorsement creates an ambiguity by its failure to provide the insured with a sample waiver form, but, rather, that the exclusionary language is ambiguous because it states that participants shall “be required” to sign waivers as opposed to mandating that the gym obtain signed waivers.  [***6] Under this interpretation, the gym argues, a reasonable person would believe that coverage exists so long as the gym has a policy of requiring waivers regardless of whether it actually obtained waivers from climbing participants. Colony argues that the policy language is unambiguous. We agree with Colony.

[4] The clear meaning of the policy language is that the gym is required to actually obtain waivers from climbing participants. The gym’s interpretation would lead to the absurd result of requiring coverage even if the gym never actually enforced its waiver policy. A reasonable person reading the policy would not understand that coverage existed in such circumstances. The gym’s interpretation is unreasonably narrow, and is therefore not the type of alternative interpretation that renders policy language ambiguous. See Curtis, 132 N.H. at 342 ( [HN5] refusing to find ambiguity when alternate interpretations would “inevitably lead to absurd results”). To construe the exclusion against the insurer here would create coverage where it is clear that none was intended. We therefore conclude that the policy language is unambiguous and that a reasonable insured would understand that the exclusion would  [***7] apply in this case.

Because the policy requires the gym to obtain waivers from all participants, the failure to do so in the case of Bigelow renders coverage under the policy inapplicable to his claims. In light of our holding, we need not address Colony’s remaining argument. We therefore reverse the order of the trial court granting the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, and hold that Colony is entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law.

Reversed and remanded.

Broderick, C.J., and Dalianis, J., concurred.