Blog: Why Have Health and Fitness Standards If Courts Won't Recognize Them?

In 1992, the American College of Sports Medicine published the first edition of ACSM's Health/Fitness Facilities Standards and Guidelines. In many ways, it was an ambitious undertaking and one that some industry observers felt was too much, too soon. One major criticism arose over the possibility that the book would serve as a ready source of written requirements to be applied as a standard of care to evaluate conduct in particular legal cases where negligence was alleged. Therefore, the second edition (published in 1997) noted that the book "represent[ed] a nationally derived consensus statement concerning the standards" set forth in the book's first chapter, and guidelines that "should not be deemed to be all-inclusive in their treatment of various areas of concern, nor should they be considered to be exclusive of other methods or modalities of service rendition."

The second edition's notice, that "the ultimate responsibility for development and application of services and procedures lies with the facility providing services," was further redrafted in a third edition (published in 2007) by a "Notice and Disclaimer" that indicated the publication should not be used to set a legal standard of care. The disclaimer read in part:

"These standards are not intended to give rise to duty of care or to establish a standard of care; rather, they are performance criteria derived from a consensus of ACSM leaders. … Such guidelines are not standards, nor are they applicable in every situation or circumstance; rather, they are illustrative tools that ACSM believes should be considered by health and fitness operators."

Despite the notice's inclusion (and a certain amount of controversy surrounding its inclusion), a number of expert witnesses and lawyers began to refer to the book as evidence of the standard of care in cases where it has been alleged that negligence took place. However, in one such case from 2009 (Bloom v. ProMaxima Mfg. Co.), a federal court in New York ruled that the preface to the publication prevented its use for evidentiary purposes, since by its own terms it was not a standard of care. That case is sure to create further controversy and uncertainty in the industry, unless the matter can be resolved.

As ACSM works to complete the book's fourth edition, to be published this year, it is worth asking the question: If the ACSM standards are not standards of care, what's the point of having such a publication at all?

Undoubtedly, ACSM's publication was developed to help protect the public and improve certain practices of the fitness profession. One could hypothesize that the standards could still be used to serve one or more of the following non-judicial purposes: 1) To serve as non-binding recommendations for the delivery of health and fitness services by professionals and the facilities in which such services are provided; and 2) To serve as an outline for the accreditation of health and fitness facilities. However, if the Bloom court's decision is adopted in other jurisdictions, which could be likely, the use of these otherwise respected standards to encourage the betterment of the industry may be in jeopardy.

If ACSM is to truly have a definitive and positive impact on the fitness industry, the notice provision of the third edition needs to change in the fourth edition. The statement needs to evolve by the creation of a standard that is truly reflective of what services need to be delivered that can be used for 1) guidance of professionals in the provision of safe and appropriate service; 2) potential accreditation of fitness facilities; and 3) application in judicial proceedings through expert witnesses to guide the court system in determining what particular standards of care may be legal requirements for fitness professionals and the facilities in which they provide service. Anything less seems to negate the standing, reputation and esteem of the ACSM and its member professionals who seem truly intent on moving the industry forward in an effort to protect the public.

Moreover, the practices of some within the industry will not improve without having a clear and well-defined prefatory notice that recognizes the need to provide proper care in such facilities or face the consequences of not doing so.

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