As if it wasn’t challenging enough to try to make physical fitness a priority in our hectic lives, there are additional and somewhat frightening hidden obstacles contained within standard health club contracts. Admit it. Ask yourself if you really read and comprehended any waivers or more likely regarded them as annoying administrative necessities when joining and signing your club’s contract. Your motivation to join was fueled by wanting to adhere to a New Year’s resolution, or become beach ready or follow the advice of your doctor to get in shape, etc. Very few people, lawyers included, actually contemplate what waivers contain. We are more interested in the cancellation policy, or the monthly fees, or transferability, etc. of the contract. Also, pause to think about whether membership services ever explained what the waiver and release of liability could mean to you if you get injured at the health club. Again, many club benefits and “rules” were probably discussed with no mention of the waiver. Yet, the waivers and releases commonly attached to the health clubs’ contracts can result in some unconscionable outcomes when injuries occur.
On March 22, 2013, the Illinois Appellate Court decided the case of Hussein v. L.A. Fitness International, L.L.C., d/b/a Pro Results, 2013 ILApp 121426 (1st Dist). In the Hussein case, the Appellate Court upheld a trial court’s dismissal of a lawsuit brought by a man who was rendered a quadriplegic after a tragic mishap with some fitness equipment at a health club. In essence, the Court said that the waiver that Mr. Hussein signed when he joined precluded his bringing the lawsuit. He was barred from even having a jury or judge listen to the evidence and find out if the health club was negligent or responsible in any way for his devastating injury. He had signed a waiver when he signed the initial contract and thus, the waiver prevented him from bringing any sort of lawsuit. He had signed away his right to sue.
In the Hussein case, the Appellate Court quoted the relevant portion of the waiver as follows:
“IMPORTANT: RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND INDEMNITY. You hereby acknowledge and agree that Member’s use of L.A. Fitness’ facilities, services, equipment or premises involves risks of injury to persons *** and Member assumes full responsibility for such risks. *** Member hereby releases and holds L.A. Fitness *** harmless from all liability to Member *** 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 L.A. Fitness or otherwise, to the fullest extent permitted by law, while Member is in, upon, or about L.A. Fitness premises or using any L.A. Fitness facilities, services or equipment. *** Member has read this release and waiver of liability ***.”
Because of this language, Mr Hussein’s lawsuit was dismissed. He filed an affidavit, a statement under oath, that indicated that the contents of the contract were not explained to him other than those regarding payment and cancellation and that he was not advised that the agreement included a release or waiver of liability. The Court said that “Illinois will not ‘interfere with the rights of two parties to contract with one another if they freely and knowingly enter into the agreement.’”
The Court then discussed that an earlier Illinois case called Garrison v. Combined Fitness Centre, Ltd., 201 Ill.App.3d 581 (1990) allows, and the state will not interfere, when parities allocate the risk of negligence as they see fit. The waivers may be broad but must put an individual “on notice the range of dangers for which he assumes the risk of injury, enabling him to minimize the risks by exercising a greater degree of caution,” according to the Court. In other words, once you sign that waiver you had better be extra careful and know that even if the Club didn’t get around to fixing that broken equipment causing you to fall and get injured, you cannot hold them legally responsible.
The Court then discussed several Illinois cases that involved releases and waivers which resulted in the dismissal of lawsuits, including a health club member who alleged that his trachea was crushed when a 295lb weighted bar rolled and dropped off a bench press; as well as another member who alleged that her wrist was injured in a slip and fall on a shower room. Both cases were dismissed.
The Court did provide another analysis as to whether the enforcement of the clause would be against public policy since if a clause violates public policy the Courts may not uphold it. However, the Court determined that Mr. “Hussein was on notice of the range of dangers he was exposing himself to, that he had assumed the risk of injury, and that he should exercise a greater degree of caution in order to minimize those risks.” That “L.A. Fitness is a private corporation and under no obligation or legal duty to accept Hussein as a member or client. Having agreed to accept him, it had the right to insist on the terms it deemed appropriate.”
When Mr. Hussein contended that the agreement concerning the waiver was unclear and that he was not specifically advised that the contract included liability release language, the Court was unpersuaded. The Court merely said that no law required L.A. Fitness to explain any part of the contract, nor could he avoid the effect by “claiming that he did not read or understand it before signing it.” As a thin consolation, the Court did then acknowledge that upholding the health club’s waiver in Mr Hussein’s case “leads to a harsh result.”
It is important to note that the Court did mention that “willful and wanton” behavior cannot be similarly released as ordinary negligence. However, it is much more difficult to prove “willful and wanton” behavior as the conduct must be more intentional or egregious. Also, certain health club waivers may not apply to “personal trainers” as they may be “independent contractors” and thus not parties to the membership contract.
Be aware of what you probably signed and didn’t realize. Dig out that old contract. Don’t assume “it won’t happen to me.” Whether the health club was responsible or not, you probably waived your rights to sue and the Court will not care if you did not read or understand the waiver, nor will it care if it “leads to a harsh result.” The treadmill in the basement may be a safer alternative as these waivers could be Hazardous to your Health!