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Who Is Liable When an Employee Is Negligent?

Assuming the personal trainer was negligent, who is liable -- the personal trainer (employee), the facility manager or the fitness center?

When 49-year-old Norma Corrigan joined a fitness center for the first time, she received three one-hour sessions with a personal trainer. During the first session, the trainer placed her on a treadmill set at 3.5 mph for 20 minutes, and left her unattended. She was not instructed on how to reduce the speed or stop the treadmill. Soon she tired, drifted back on the treadmill, tried to walk faster and, failing, was thrown from the treadmill and broke her ankle. The case was sent to trial to determine if a duty owed the plaintiff was breached (Corrigan v. Musclemakers Inc., 1999 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 1954).

In this case, it seems that the personal trainer was negligent. The inexperienced plaintiff was left unsupervised on a dangerous piece of equipment with no instructions as to how to operate it. Assuming the personal trainer was negligent, who is liable -- the personal trainer (employee), the facility manager or the fitness center?

Employees

Generally, employees are individually liable for their own negligent conduct. In the Corrigan case, the employee might be found negligent for failing to properly supervise, or for failing to instruct the plaintiff on the operation of the treadmill, in which case, the employee could be liable for any damages awarded by the court.

Some professionals think that they are not liable because they (or the fitness center) have insurance. Not true! They are still liable for negligence, and may have to endure a trial. However, liability insurance will cover any award (up to the policy limits) if the action is a covered by the policy. The employee must pay any award beyond the policy's limits.

Management

Facility managers and other administrative/supervisory personnel are often concerned about their personal liability if an employee or subordinate is negligent. In the Corrigan case, for instance, would the manager be liable for the negligent act of the employee/personal trainer? The general rule is that supervisory personnel are individually liable for their own negligent acts, but are not liable for the negligence of subordinates. However, supervisors are liable if their failure to perform an administrative duty enhanced the likelihood of the injury. For instance, supervisors may be liable if they failed to do the following:

1. Employ competent personnel and discharge those who are not competent.
2. Provide proper supervision with a supervisory plan.
3. Establish safety rules and regulations, and comply with policy and statutory requirements.
4. Inspect for and remedy or warn of dangerous conditions or defective equipment.

5. Direct the services in a proper manner.

In the Corrigan case, if the court found that the manager did not employ qualified personnel, failed to have a supervisory plan in place, or failed to establish rules regarding the use of equipment by novices, the manager could also be held liable.

Fitness facility

The doctrine of respondent superior generally governs the question regarding the liability of a fitness center for the negligence of an employee. The doctrine states that the negligence of an employee (or volunteer) is imputed to the corporate entity if the employee was acting within the scope of the employee's responsibility and authority.

Note that in this case, Corrigan sued the fitness center and not the personal trainer or the club manager. Frequently, the suit names the employee, management, fitness center, equipment manufacturer and others as defendants. But the fitness center is almost always named because it generally has more money than an employee or manager. It is also important to know that had the personal trainer been an independent contractor and not an employee, the fitness center would probably not be liable, and the independent contractor would be the target of the suit.

Risk management

Risk management necessitates a thorough knowledge of the law, of potential liability and of legal duties. Employees should know that they are legally liable for the consequences of their negligent acts; management must know the legal ramifications for failing to perform their administrative duties; and fitness center owners must be aware of their liability for the negligence of management and all other employees.
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