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Avoid Modified Equipment

Serious injury for members - and serious liability for fitness centers - are at stake when equipment doesn't meet industry standards.

Carlos Marcano was injured while being detained at Rikers Island in New York City. When he entered the exercise yard, Marcano jumped up on a set of parallel bars constructed at the prison, immediately fell off onto the concrete below and was rendered quadriplegic. The plaintiff subsequently filed suit, alleging that the parallel bars were defectively designed and that supervision and instruction were inadequate. The appellate court reversed the summary judgment in favor of the City of New York, and sent the case back for trial (Marcano v. City of New York, 2002 App. Div. LEXIS 5923). Unfortunately, mistakes similar to those made at Rikers Island are often made at fitness facilities, and can leave the fitness center or fitness professional liable.

Mistakes add up

The prison made two major mistakes. First, the bars were designed and constructed by the supervisor of mechanics of Rikers Island. They were made of spare metal parts on hand for building doors, partitions and window frames. The bars were made of 2-by-2-inch square tubing with a total circumference of 8 inches. The designer used no industry standards and sought no advice from designers or others who might know the appropriate standards. In addition, a uniquely dangerous condition was created in that the bars were mounted above a concrete surface with no padding provided. The expert witness for the plaintiff testified that the bars had two defects that "unreasonably increased the risk of injury." The first was that the bars were square, and the second was the 8-inch circumference of the bars. The industry standard ranges from 3-7/8 inches to 7-1/8 inches, with the usual being between 4 and 6 inches in circumference. Both defects make it difficult for the participant to hold on. The second major mistake was the absence of supervision and instruction. The plaintiff had never seen or used the equipment prior to the injury. A witness testified that Marcano approached the bars and swung up, his arms gave out, and he slipped and fell to the concrete head first. The plaintiff argued that he was totally unfamiliar with the use of the equipment, had no experience, was not instructed in its use and had no comprehension of the risk involved. The trial court granted the defendants' summary judgment motion on the grounds that the defects were open and obvious, and that the plaintiff had assumed the risk of falling when he engaged in exercise activity. The appellate court agreed that the square shape was open and obvious, but ruled that whether the equipment enhanced the risk was still at issue - an important point because a participant in a recreational activity does not assume unreasonable increased risks, nor risks that are not inherent in the activity.

Risk management principles

1. Avoid the use of "homemade" equipment. Purchase your equipment from reputable dealers and manufacturers. Become familiar with industry standards, and see that your purchases meet them. 2. Do not modify or make major repairs to your equipment. Normally, the manufacturer will be liable for any defects in the equipment; but, when you make changes to it, that potential liability passes on to you. It is also important that you perform all maintenance that is recommended by the manufacturer - and keep detailed records of it. 3. Be certain that all of your clients are familiarized with each piece of equipment, and know how to use it properly. All new members should be introduced to all of the equipment prior to using it. Also, steps should be taken to make certain all clients are familiar with new types of equipment as it is added. 4. Do nothing that will increase the risk of an activity beyond the normal inherent risks of the activity.

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