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Who's Signing on the Dotted Line?

A membership card and a previously signed agreement prevented a suit against a facility after an injury.

In an interesting case, a California Court of Appeals ruled that a husband's alleged execution of a release agreement on behalf of his wife prevented her subsequent personal injury lawsuit against a fitness facility. In this case, Brown v. 24 Hour Fitness (Contra Costa County Super. Ct. No. C05-00438), the wife joined the defendant facility in early 2001, and apparently executed a prospective release as part of a membership agreement with the facility. Several months later, she terminated her membership. However, her son acquired a membership for her in the fall of 2001, and her husband allegedly signed her name to the membership agreement, which also contained a release provision. Thereafter, she was provided and subsequently used a membership card that stated, "This membership and card are not transferable and are bound by the terms covered in membership agreement." Apparently, the wife used the membership card on a number of occasions to gain access to the fitness center, its facilities and various amenities prior to March 2003.

On March 3, 2003, she suffered a severe injury when she allegedly fell over a 55-pound dumbbell that was left on the floor. She filed suit against the facility about two years later, and the fitness center moved for summary judgment based on the wife's apparent execution of the agreement containing the release, and her subsequent use of the facility through the use of the membership card. While she contended that her husband had signed the agreement and not herself, the trial court granted judgment to the defendant based on the release. The injured plaintiff then appealed.

On appeal, the appellate court determined that even if the plaintiff's husband signed her name to the agreement, she had previously signed an identically worded agreement when she had a membership in her own name, and had used the membership card and the club's facilities on several occasions knowing that the card referenced the agreement containing the release. Since the appellate court determined that the release was "readable, understandable and free from ambiguity," it held "that even if the plaintiff did not know the terms of the release in the second membership agreement, she constructively knew of them based upon her prior dealings, the nature of her membership and her use of an access - granting membership contract or card that put her on notice of those terms." Therefore, it affirmed the trial court's ruling in favor of the fitness center.

Hold your applause

Facilities should not place any precedent value on this case and believe that one spouse may bind the other spouse to contracts that one spouse purportedly signs on behalf of the other. Generally, to hold a party liable under a contract signed by someone else, including a fitness center membership agreement, that second party must be authorized by law to do so through a document such as a power of attorney. The unique and specific facts of this case made the agreement binding upon the non-executing spouse due to her "knowing use" of the membership card that incorporated the terms of an agreement that was identical to one she had previously signed. Since she used the card to accept the benefits of the agreement, the court made the release provision contained in the agreement binding upon her. Had she not used such a membership card or previously signed a similar agreement, a different result may have occurred in this case.

Match the face to the name

Facilities should ensure that the correct person signs membership agreements in order to make them binding. Marriage does not authorize one spouse to sign and bind the other spouse to contracts. Facilities should train their staff in the proper execution of membership agreements, and should require that at least one staff person actually witness the execution process. Identification documents should also be obtained, copied and then preserved with the agreement. If a power of attorney or similar document is used on behalf of another, a copy of such a document should be kept with the membership agreement.
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