Personal trainers, whether working as independent contractors or employees, have become a common sight at many health clubs and gyms, where they work with individuals to develop safe and effective exercise programs. One key to creating a safe environment is for personal trainers to demonstrate the proper way to use the gym's equipment and to ensure that the individuals under their guidance are using it properly. A good example of some of the duties personal trainers owe their clients is Pryce v. Town Sports International, LLC, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 62977.
Back turned, shoulder injured
In 2015, Simone Pryce joined New York Sports Club, which included as part of its membership agreement the following clause:
"Any strenuous athletic or physical activity involves certain risks. By signing this agreement, you represent that you understand, and you acknowledge that there are certain risks associated with the use of a health club and the use of fitness equipment, and that free weights pose a risk of injury if not used correctly. We cannot guarantee that any facility or equipment is free of risk. You agree to use care in the use of the club's facility, equipment and services and to protect against accidents by other members."
Shortly after joining NYSC, Pryce decided to sign up for personal training sessions with Jonathan Reyes. Reyes, who worked for NYSC, met Pryce for an introductory session, during which he conducted an initial assessment. Reyes asked Pryce questions about her health history, lifestyle habits and fitness goals.
Based on that evaluation, Reyes developed a fitness program for Pryce. At first, the training consisted of mostly bodyweight training, but as it evolved, Reyes began incorporating light weights. During later personal training sessions, Pryce advanced to using stationary machines and an 8-pound medicine ball with handles.
For the NYSC visit at issue in the case, Pryce exercised for 30 minutes on the elliptical and then checked in with Reyes to let him know that she was ready for their session. About halfway into it, Reyes demonstrated an exercise for Pryce referred to as a "core diagonal crossover," which involved holding an 8-pound medicine ball out in front of Pryce's chest with slightly bent arms, and then moving it over toward her right shoulder to about ear level before returning it in front of her chest.
As she performed the exercise, Pryce tried to replicate the form and technique that Reyes had demonstrated for her. Reyes stood within 3 feet of Pryce when she began the exercise to observe and, as necessary, correct her form. However, at some point when she was performing the exercise, Reyes walked approximately 12 feet away to talk to a patron at the gym. While he was speaking with the other patron, Reyes had his back to Pryce.
After performing two or three repetitions, Pryce felt a pull in her shoulder. When Pryce felt the pull, she did not call out to Reyes. Instead, she stopped the exercise, put the medicine ball down, and waited for Reyes to come back to tell him she was having a hard time. Reyes told her they would end the session for the day, and he brought her to the table outside of his office and stretched her out. Pryce initially viewed her pain as akin to the usual soreness she experienced after training sessions, and particularly after trying new exercises. However, when the soreness did not subside, Pryce visited a doctor and was informed that she had a bicep tear and that her rotator cuff needed to be surgically repaired.
Based on that diagnosis, Pryce sued Reyes and NYSC for negligence. Specifically, Pryce argued that Reyes breached his duty to ensure a safe and controlled exercise environment when he left her unsupervised while she was performing an exercise with a medicine ball, thereby proximately causing Pryce's injury.
Inherent risks in exercise
In reviewing the facts, the court held that to prevail on her negligence claim, Pryce had to prove that: 1) NYSC or Reyes owed her a duty of care; 2) the duty was breached; and 3) the breach proximately caused her injuries. In particular, the court noted that the threshold question in any negligence action is: Does the defendant owe a legal duty of care to the plaintiff?
NYSC and Reyes argued that by signing the membership agreement, Pryce acknowledged that she understood the inherent risks associated with the use of NYSC's equipment, and further, that by voluntarily using NYSC's equipment and personal training services, she assumed the inherent risks associated with participating in a personal training session and exercising at the gym. Therefore, NYSC and Reyes argued that Pryce assumed all risks associated from such participation.
Pryce, on the other hand, argued that Reyes, by walking away 12 feet and turning his back to her, had unreasonably heightened the risks to which Pryce would normally have been exposed during the weight lifting. Therefore, she could not have assumed the added risk.
In rejecting Pryce's negligence claim, the court held that under the assumption-of-risk doctrine, Reyes walking 12 feet away from her during her personal training session had not unreasonably increased the risks above the level inherent in the activity to which Pryce had consented. In particular, the court found nothing to indicate that Pryce did not freely consent to performing the exercise in question, nor that Reyes or anyone else at NYSC concealed any risks associated with the physical training Pryce sought.
The court concluded that Reyes's actions had not unreasonably increased the risks above the level inherent in the activity to which Pryce consented and she therefore could not establish a breach of a duty of care.
In support of this conclusion, the court noted that Pryce acknowledged, when she signed the membership agreement, that she understood that "any strenuous athletic or physical activity involves certain risks," and "that there are certain risks associated with the use of a health club and the use of fitness equipment." Understanding these risks, she voluntarily joined NYSC, signed up for personal training and performed the exercises Reyes prescribed for her. In addition, nothing in the record suggested that the exercise Pryce was performing was inherently dangerous, that it was contraindicated specifically for Pryce given her known prior injuries, or that Pryce expressed concerns about performing it. By consenting to accept the risks associated with the activity, she limited the general duty of care owed to her.
As such, NYSC could only be held liable if Reyes, by either action or inaction, concealed, misrepresented or unreasonably increased the commonly understood risks to Pryce resulting from her use of NYSC's facility and equipment. However, since Pryce was not lifting an amount of weight that she could not control on her own, nor was she performing exercises that would likely exacerbate an underlying condition of which Reyes was aware, Reyes could not be found to have increased the risks of injury beyond those that were inherent in the activity.
Finally, while the court noted that it was unprofessional and potentially unsafe for a trainer to lose sight of a client while the client was actively performing an exercise, and that such conduct might violate NYSC's training policy, it is unclear what Reyes could have done to prevent her injury had he been standing right next to her. Therefore, the court concluded it could not find that Reyes's conduct, even if a deviation from best practices, unreasonably increased Pryce's risk of injury.
While the court sympathized with Pryce for the pain and discomfort she suffered, it nonetheless found that she failed to meet her burden of proof. And while the service providers prevailed in this case, there are a few key points that athletics, fitness and recreation administrators can take away from it.
First, as illustrated by the court, if an employee does not increase the risks of an activity over and above those inherent in the activity, the assumption-of-risk doctrine is an effective defense in most cases.
Second, it is essential that trainers keep an eye on clients while under their care. As the court noted, Reyes' conduct was unprofessional. Faced with a different set of facts showing that Reyes may have been able to prevent the injury with unwavering attention to his client, a court could easily have found him negligent. However, as the court noted in this case, even if an employee breaches his duty of care, as argued after Reyes walked away from Pryce, that breach still must be the cause of the injury. If the breach does not cause the injury, there is no negligence.
Finally, it is important to remember that the owners of facilities are only legally liable for the actions of their employees. Since facility owners have no control over the actions of independent contractors, they cannot be liable for their negligence even if it occurred at the facility.
This article originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Trainer’s Duty of Care Tested by Gym Injury" Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.