James Walters was on his way to his YMCA's indoor pool when he slipped and fell at the bottom of steps that led to the pool area. All of the steps — with the exception of the bottom step — were protected by slip-resistant rubber stair treads. Due to excessive wear, the non-slip tread on the bottom stair had been removed. Walters sustained significant injuries in the fall and required knee surgery.
Walters filed a personal injury claim against the facility. In August 2014, the New Jersey Appellate Division rendered a decision in Walters v. YMCA, 96 A.3d 323, which limited the scope of the waiver language contained in the YMCA's membership agreement, language intended to limit the YMCA's potential for civil liability. In reversing the trial court's grant of summary judgment to the YMCA, the Appellate Division allowed the plaintiff to proceed with his personal injury claim against the facility.
Responding to Walters' lawsuit against the YMCA for his personal injury, the YMCA argued that the exculpatory language contained in the membership agreement barred Walters' claim. Specifically, the broad exculpatory language read:
"I agree that the YMWCA will not be responsible for any personal injuries or losses sustained by me while on any YMWCA premises or as a result of YMWCA sponsored activities. I further agree to indemnify and save harmless the YMWCA from any claims or demands arising out of such injuries or losses."
The YMCA asserted that the exculpatory language barred the claim on both provisions — first, because the injury occurred on the facility premises, and because Walters walking toward the pool constituted an activity sponsored by the YMCA. Walters argued that the exculpatory language was too broad, asserting that business owners have a common law duty of care to invitees, and that because his injury was unrelated to the inherent risks of health club activities, his claim should not be barred.
Thus, the court was left to determine whether Walters was participating in an activity sponsored by the YMCA when he fell, and whether a health club or fitness facility can use an exculpatory clause to insulate itself from the ordinary common law duty of care owed to invitees by business owners.
When assessing the nature of the activity Walters was engaged in at the time of the injury, the court reasoned, quite simply, that walking toward the pool and using the pool are two very different things. The court acknowledged that had the harm occurred while the plaintiff was actively engaged in an activity offered by the YMCA, the categorization of the harm would likely have been different. However, the court made clear that walking about the facility premises is not the same as being engaged in a YMCA-sponsored activity.
Next, in determining the appropriate scope of exculpatory language in health club facilities, both the trial court and Appellate Division looked to a 2010 New Jersey Supreme Court decision, Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, Inc., 1 A. 3d 678 (N.J. 2010). In Stelluti, a private health club patron was injured when the handlebars collapsed on a stationary bike she was using. She had signed a membership agreement containing exculpatory language that released the club from "any and all claims or causes of action" and waived all potential legal actions against the club resulting from personal injury.
In upholding the exculpatory clause, the Stelluti court reasoned that membership agreements may contain language protecting a health club against liability for the nature of their business, "which is to make available the specialized equipment and facility to their invitees who are there to exercise, to train and to push their physical limits as long as they do not engage in reckless or grossly negligent conduct." However, the Stelluti court specifically left unanswered the question of whether membership agreements containing such broad exculpatory language should be valid in cases where the incurred harm was not specifically related to activities common in health and fitness facilities.
Drawing a distinction between the two cases, the Walters court noted that in the Stelluti case, the plaintiff's injury resulted from the inherently risky nature of physical activity, while Walters incurred an injury that could have happened on any business premises, and that the YMCA's status as a health and fitness facility was unrelated to the cause of the injury. In fact, the Walters court found this distinction important as it impacted the validity of the exculpatory language when assessed from a public policy standpoint.
Specifically, the Walters court held that the membership agreement signed by Walters was, in fact, an adhesion contract with which the YMCA sought to insulate itself from all civil liability. In reversing the motion for summary judgment, the court held that health and fitness facilities that may benefit from exculpatory language when a harm is directly related to health or fitness activity cannot absolve themselves of all civil liability for injuries incurred on a premises simply because they are in the fitness industry.
The decisions of the Stelluti and Walters courts only have precedential value in New Jersey, but the holdings in both cases provide important reminders to facility owners and operators regarding the enforceability of exculpatory language in membership agreements. Specifically, the outcome of each case is likely to be fact-specific; the circumstances surrounding the injury and the specific exculpatory language will be carefully examined.
Although each state interprets and enforces exculpatory language consistent with individual state standards and precedents, in general, these cases provide recognition that exculpatory language is not a complete shield from civil liability for health and fitness facilities.
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Kristi Schoepfer-Bochicchio is an associate professor of Sports Management and Sport Law at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C. This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Tread Carefully"