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The Personal Trainer's Duty of Care

Minimize liability by conducting a thorough assessment of each client, researching the laws in your state and using appropriate waivers.

Masood Rostai observed Jared Shoultz' physique while he was in Rostai's furniture store. Rostai said he would like to look like Shoultz, a personal trainer, who then agreed to train Rostai. At the end of the first training session, Rostai suffered a heart attack, and sued Shoultz alleging negligence in failing to investigate Rostai's cardiac risk factors. Rostai was 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighed 228 pounds. The first training session started with 12 minutes on a level treadmill at 3 to 4 mph, then 20 repetitions of a 40-pound weight on an inclined bench. The plaintiff asked for a break, and was told "later." Rostai performed 10 push-ups and asked for a break, saying he was tired and out of breath. Shoultz replied, "Don't be a pussy" and "First give me 10 sit-ups." They returned to the inclined bench to repeat the weight lifting with more weight at a faster rate. The plaintiff stopped after four or five reps; Shoultz pointed at a woman in the facility and said, "Come on, don't you want to get some of this ass?" Shoultz instructed Rostai to lie down for leg lifts, and Rostai started having chest pain. He said he was out of breath and needed water. He then told Shoultz he thought he was having a heart attack [Rostai v. Neste Enterprises, 2006, Cal. App. LEXIS 476].

Under California law, to prevail in a negligence claim, the plaintiff must show that the defendant owed a legal duty. Normally, if a person owes a duty to another, and breaches that duty causing injury, that person can be held legally liable. Primary assumption of risk is a doctrine that means the plaintiff has no duty; thus, one cannot recover for an injury received when one voluntarily exposes oneself to a known and appreciated danger. One who assumes the risk relieves the other party from the duty of ordinary care and subsequent liability for negligence. When the doctrine applies, the party owes no duty to the other person except to avoid reckless conduct or acts intended to injure that party.

The Supreme Court of California ruled that a participant does not owe a duty of care to a co-participant in a sport setting, and is liable only in the event of reckless or intentional acts that injure. Subsequent court rulings have expanded the doctrine to many other sports and activities, and have addressed the duty of a coach or instructor to the student. These courts have established a general rule that a coach or instructor who makes an error in assessment in pushing or encouraging a student to improve can be held liable only if the instructor intentionally injures a player or engages in conduct that is so reckless as to be totally outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in the sport. In other words, an instructor's errors in assessment are considered inherent risks of the activity, and carry with them no liability. Courts have stated that to instruct is to challenge or to urge a student to go beyond what the student has already mastered - and to hold instructors liable for negligence would discourage instructors from asking students to go beyond previous achievements.

The court in this case ruled that fitness training under the guidance of a personal trainer is an activity to which the doctrine of primary assumption of risk applies - thereby freeing the trainer from a duty of ordinary care and any liability for negligence. Although the court felt that Shoultz did not accurately assess Rostai's level of physical fitness, and may have misinterpreted Rostai's physical complaints, it found no evidence that Shoultz acted with intent to injure the plaintiff or acted recklessly. Since Rostai assumed the inherent risks of the activity, and since instructor assessment error is an inherent risk, Shoultz was not liable for his negligence.

Risk management principles

Notwithstanding the fact that Shoultz was not found liable in this case, no one would hold him up as a shining example for other personal trainers. While the California court did not hold him liable, there are states in which his negligence would have triggered liability. Also note that simply because California courts (as well as courts in many other states) have held that an instructor or coach is not liable for injuries that occur when the coach is pushing or encouraging a participant to improve (unless the coach's acts involve recklessness or intent to injure), this does not mean that coaches or instructors are never liable for their own negligent acts. Liability for negligence still holds for most negligence committed by the coach or instructor (e.g., failure to create a safe environment, failure to supervise, failure to follow normal progression in instruction, erroneous instruction and much more).

Always use good judgment and caution, follow the accepted practices for your profession and exercise ordinary care for the safety of participants. In addition, learn all you can about risk management, and implement a sound risk-management program that includes liability insurance and liability waivers.

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