Lawsuit Shows Why College Recreation Centers Need Risk Management Plan

A fitness center injury lawsuit illustrates the importance of a proper risk management plan.

As any administrator or employee involved in the sports and recreation industry will acknowledge, one of the most important tasks is to control or limit an organization's exposure to financial risk - either through insurance or by taking corrective actions that mitigate risk. While there are many ways to reduce an organization's exposure, one of the best is to develop a risk management plan.

In developing an effective risk management plan - which can include everything from the frequency and type of maintenance required on equipment to proper emergency procedures and training for personnel - it is essential that sports and recreation administrators try to identify any and all risks that may be associated with an activity. As a result, one of the first steps is to conduct a risk audit, during which administrators walk around the facility and inspect for potential dangers. Inspection of all equipment for wear and tear is important, since the facility is liable for any injuries suffered on defective or broken equipment that it knows, or should have known, poses a danger to users.

It is not enough, however, to conduct only a single or annual audit. For a risk management plan to be effective, it is essential that the plan incorporate a regular, systematic inspection program that includes a written record of the inspection, including who conducted the audit, the date, any defects found, and any remedies taken to correct them.

A good example of how performing regular systematic inspections can reduce an organization's financial exposure involves the case of Michael Beglin, then a student at Hartwick College. While working out with a friend at the school's fitness center, the weight machine his friend was using became jammed. As Michael tried to ascertain why the metal weight plates were stuck, the plates, weighing approximately 140 pounds, suddenly dislodged and fell on his hand, which he had rested on the machine. As a result of his injury, Beglin sued the college, claiming that it had, or should have had, actual notice of the dangerous condition of the weight machine and therefore was negligent.

Before Beglin v. Hartwick College [888 N.Y.S.2d 320 (2009)] got to trial, the college moved for summary judgment in an effort to dismiss Beglin's lawsuit. In reviewing Hartwick's motion for summary judgment, the trial court held that a court can only award summary judgment when it believes, after reviewing all the facts, that even if all the facts presented were true, the nonmoving party (in this case Beglin) would still be unable to win his case. Using this standard, the trial court rejected Hartwick's motion. Disappointed with the trial court's decision, the college appealed to the Supreme Court of New York, Third Appellate Division.

In considering whether to grant the college's appeal, the court ruled that the issue before it was whether the college had established as a matter of law that it did not have actual or constructive notice of a dangerous condition of the weight machine, which allegedly resulted in the plaintiff's injury. Hartwick had a duty to exercise reasonable care to keep Beglin, the "invitee" - the legal designation for an individual who has either paid for use of or been invited to use the premises - safe. That obligation required the college to protect Beglin from any unreasonable risk, and to avoid acts that can create risks, such as allowing invitees to use dangerous equipment.

Hartwick, however, argued that it had no knowledge of the danger the weight machine posed and, therefore, it had met its duty to Beglin. In support of this position, Hartwick provided the testimony of two employees, Heidi Hofbauer-Buzzy, an athletic trainer at the fitness center, and Louise Lansing, the fitness center's supervisor. Hofbauer-Buzzy and Lansing both denied having knowledge of any problems with the weight machine prior to Beglin's accident.

In opposition, Beglin presented testimony from another employee of the fitness center - Richard Cook, the fitness center custodian. Cook, who at the time of the accident was responsible for cleaning and servicing the equipment in the fitness center, testified that the metal plates on the weight machine could easily become jammed if an accessory weight was improperly placed on the machine. Cook further testified that this was a recurring problem with the machine in question, requiring that it be repaired several times in the past, and that he had notified Hofbauer-Buzzy of the problem.

This conflicting evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to Beglin (as the nonmoving party), led the appeals court to conclude that there was a genuine issue of fact with regard to whether Hartwick and its employees had actual notice of the dangerous condition of the weight machine.

The appeals court's decision in favor of Beglin does not award the plaintiff any damages and only sends the case back to the trial court, where a jury must determine whether an accessory weight was used and, also, whether such use was the cause of the weight jam. Another issue will be whether Beglin ignored the warning label on the weight machine when he placed his hand beneath the weights, thereby creating an issue of comparative negligence. Nonetheless, the decision illustrates the importance of a proper risk management plan.

For example, if Hartwick College had such a plan in place, it would have been impossible for Lansing, the fitness center's supervisor, not to have known of the danger presented by the allegedly defective equipment. In addition, such a plan would have allowed Cook or other employees the opportunity to note the problem with the weight machine (beyond merely telling a supervisor) and hopefully correct the problem or remove the equipment before Beglin was injured. By failing to implement, or follow, such a plan, Hartwick College not only has incurred the financial loss of defending itself in court, but now faces the real possibility of losing at the trial level and paying Beglin's damages.

Legal Action

The Indiana High School Athletic Association's motion to dismiss was itself dismissed in March, meaning that the Title IX and civil rights lawsuit brought by former Franklin County High School girls' basketball coach Amber Parker on behalf of her daughters over the scheduling of boys' and girls' basketball games will proceed. Named in the suit, which challenges the scheduling of boys' teams more often on preferred Friday and Saturday nights, are the IHSAA, the school and 14 of its basketball opponents.

According to The Indianapolis Star, at the time that the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights sent a letter about the scheduling disparity to Bob Gardner, then commissioner of the IHSAA, in 1997, girls' teams played 10.5 percent of their games on Friday nights compared with the boys' 48.1 percent. The paper reports that those numbers have improved in the Indianapolis area, but boys' teams still play more than twice as many games on premium dates.

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