It is important that fitness center owners and managers understand the duty of the facility to protect its patrons from injury caused by another patron.

A fitness center member alleged he was physically injured when the patron next to him threw dumbbells to the floor. He claimed that the resulting loud noise and the person's close proximity to him caused him to turn so suddenly that his back popped and he fell, injuring himself. He sued the fitness center, alleging negligent maintenance, negligent supervision, negligent training for the safety of patrons, and negligently failing to instruct and/or train its patrons in the proper procedures to be used in handling weights (Orlando vs. FEI Hollywood Inc. Fla. App. LEXIS 3086, 2005).

It is important that fitness center owners and managers understand the duty of the facility to protect its patrons from injury caused by another patron. In sport, recreation and fitness, one patron causing injury to another is not an unusual occurrence. A racquetball player may strike a playing partner with the racquet, a group exercise participant may trip and fall on another, or a fitness patron may get into an argument and strike another patron. The question is, "Is the provider liable for injuries resulting from such actions?"

The business of protection

The yardstick of the business owner's duty to protect its invitees against negligent injury from third parties is whether the action is foreseeable. In a Florida case (Warner vs. Florida Jai Alai Inc., 1970), the business was sued for failing to control and supervise the activity when a drunken patron shoved and injured another patron. The business was not found liable because the operator did not have actual or constructive knowledge of the risk posed by the specific intoxicated patron. As a general rule, a business owner is not liable for failing to prevent a sudden, unexpected action by a patron where there was no prior indication that the patron was engaging in dangerous conduct. In cases where the injury results from a criminal act, the business owner's knowledge of past incidents on the premises by other persons may be sufficient to create liability. For example, if sexual attacks have occurred outside a fitness center at night, the facility might need to light the area and provide some security.

The Florida Supreme Court has stated that the legal threshold for liability is a finding that a defendant's alleged action created a foreseeable "zone of risk" of harming others. In Orlando vs. FEI Hollywood, Orlando did not show that the fitness center knew or should have known that the other patron posed a risk, or that there was ever a problem at the facility with anyone handling free weights. The court held that there is no basis to conclude the patron's conduct was foreseeable by the business owner. What occurred was a sudden unexpected action by the patron. However, the foreseeability of injury might have been greater and liability might have resulted if 1) there had been a number of prior injuries resulting from improper handling of equipment, 2) management had a number of complaints regarding dangerous or careless handling, or 3) if management had known that a patron had carelessly dropped weights, endangering others on previous occasions.

Guidelines

Several insights may be gained from this case that can help in managing risks in a fitness center. Suggestions include the following:

  • Provide training on the proper use of all equipment when a patron joins the facility, and when new kinds of equipment are introduced.
  • Train supervisors to be alert for and to correct unsafe practices or unsafe conditions.
  • Promptly address all complaints and suggestions from patrons.
  • When injuries occur, investigate the cause and, when appropriate, take steps that might help to prevent the recurrence of such injuries.