All types of staff members in health/fitness facilities, including personal trainers, group exercise leaders, fitness floor supervisors, and those who provide the initial orientation for new members, provide instruction to participants on a daily basis. Negligence cases involving issues related to instruction have occurred against health/fitness facilities in two ways: 1) omission-the failure to provide instruction, and 2) commission-inadequate or improper instruction. This article will discuss some of these cases as well as present risk management strategies that can be implemented to minimize liability in this area.
In a negligence case, the plaintiff (e.g., a participant who was injured at a health/fitness facility) has to prove that the defendant (e.g., a health/fitness facility) had a duty, breached that duty, and that the breach of duty caused the injury. In Thomas v. Sport City, Inc. (1), Thomas was injured while using a hack squat machine. He claimed his injury was due, in part, to Sport City's failure to instruct him on the proper use of the machine. When establishing whether Sport City had a duty to instruct Thomas on the proper use of the machine, the appellate court stated that "members of health clubs are owed a duty of reasonable care to protect them from injury on the premises" and "this duty includes a general responsibility to ensure that their members know how to properly use gym equipment" (p. 1157). Based upon this statement, it was clear that Sport City had a duty to ensure that Thomas knew how to use the equipment properly. Did Sport City breach this duty? According to the court, "It is uncontested that Sport City had not instructed or supervised plaintiff in the use of the hack squat machine. This would…be a breach of duty by Sport City as this machine could easily cause injury if not properly used" (p. 1158). It was evident in the court's analysis that Sport City had a duty to instruct and supervise Thomas in the proper use of the machine and that it breached this duty. However, did the breach of duty cause (the third element that must be proven in negligence) the injury?
Thomas testified that he knew how to use the hack squat machine and that he did not have to be instructed on its use. He had used the machine for years, hundreds if not thousands of times. After his testimony, the court determined that the plaintiff's injury was his own fault-he failed to properly engage a hook to secure the rack of weights causing the rack of weights to fall, crushing his foot and breaking his ankle. Although it is evident that Sport City had a duty to instruct and supervise and that the company had breached this duty, the company was not liable because the breach of duty did not cause the injury. If Thomas had been an inexperienced user who had not received proper instruction and supervision on the machine's proper use, it is likely that Sport City would have been found negligent for the failure to provide instruction-an example of omission.
Liability associated with the failure to instruct on the proper use of exercise equipment can be costly. One insurance company conducted an analysis of the number of liability claims and the average cost for each over an approximate 3 ½ year period in the 1,600 health clubs the company insured (2). The most common claim was member malfunction, meaning the cause of the injury was not caused by any defect in the equipment. The company had 80 member malfunction claims with an average cost per claim of $7,054.93, totaling $564,394.40. Although this study did not further explain the causes of member malfunction, it most likely involved members who did not use the equipment properly because of a lack of instruction or improper instruction or supervision. To minimize claims and lawsuits that involve these types of issues, health/fitness facilities should consider the following risk management strategies:
- Post placards on each piece of exercise equipment that provide instructions on the proper use of the machine.
- Require that all new members participate in an initial orientation where a staff member provides instruction on the proper use of the exercise equipment. Document the date the instruction occurred and what the instruction entailed.
- Provide all new members with instruction on principles of safe exercise in the initial orientation, for instance, warm-up and cool-down, progression and monitoring intensity, signs and symptoms of overexertion, and potential risks associated with exercise. It is best to verbally explain these principles using handouts that they can take with them after the orientation.
- Provide ongoing general supervision of the fitness floor during all operating hours. General supervision involves careful observation to help ensure that individuals are properly using the equipment and following fitness center policies. For example, if someone is not safely executing an exercise, it is important that a floor supervisor approach this individual and instruct him or her on the proper execution.
Group exercise leaders also have a duty to provide safe instruction. In Santana v. Women's Workout and Weight Loss Center, Inc. (3), the plaintiff fell and fractured her ankle, requiring surgical insertion of pins to stabilize the injury. She claimed that the exercise class was improperly instructed and unnecessarily hazardous because the step aerobics activity was done simultaneously with the use a dynaband. Dr. Peter Francis, expert witness for the plaintiff, stated that the combination of the two types of exercise did not meet the standard of care because it resulted in a situation that was inherently dangerous. A situation that is inherently dangerous increases risks beyond those that generally exist in any given activity and can be considered negligent. In a step aerobics class, a participant could accidentally miss a step and fall and break his or her ankle, but the injury is not caused by negligent instruction-it is just something that can happen. However, in response to the instructor having the participants perform the two exercises simultaneously, the Santana court stated that "defendants generally have a duty to use due care not to increase the risks to a participant over and above those inherent in the sport" (p. 26). Therefore, it was evident from this court that the step aerobics instructor was negligent because her instruction was improper-an example of commission.
Improper instruction is a common issue in negligence cases against personal trainers. The types of improper instruction claims that can arise are demonstrated in a recent case, Evans v. Pikeway, Inc. (4). At the time of the injury, Evans was using a squat machine under the direct supervision of a certified personal trainer. He claimed that his personal trainer did the following:
- Failed to properly and adequately supervise the activities he performed
- Instructed, permitted, and caused the plaintiff to lift a dangerous and hazardous amount of weight
- Failed to spot him while he was lifting the weight bar
- Failed to ensure that the weight lifted was appropriate given his experience, ability, weight, and size
- Failed to properly secure the weights to the weight bar he lifted
The court ruled that a waiver in this case protected both the personal trainer and the fitness center, so neither was found negligent. Waivers, if written and administered properly, can protect health/fitness facilities from negligence in most states (5). However, they should never be relied upon as the sole risk management strategy. They do nothing to help prevent injuries and any claims/lawsuits that may follow as demonstrated in Evans. Coordinators have a responsibility that the group exercise leaders and personal trainers they supervise are providing proper instruction and therefore should consider the following risk management strategies:
- Employ only well-qualified group exercise leaders and personal trainers, for example, require education/certification credentials and work experience.
- Directly observe and evaluate the group exercise leaders/personal trainers on a regular basis. Never assume that because someone has appropriate credentials and work experience that they are instructing properly. It is suspected in Santana that the coordinator of the group exercise program never observed the instructor's teaching performance. However, if the coordinator had, it is likely that this step aerobics instructor would have been advised (and maybe required) to eliminate combining exercises that could put participants at risk for injury. Then, if the instructor would have followed this feedback, the injury (and subsequent lawsuit) in this case may not have occurred.
As demonstrated through the case law presented, a variety of staff members in health/fitness facilities have a legal duty to provide proper instruction. However, it is the ultimate responsibility of coordinators, managers, and owners of health/fitness facilities to ensure that their staff members are adhering to this duty on a daily basis. Coordinators and managers can be held liable for the negligent acts of their employees through a legal doctrine called respondeat superior. Therefore, they have a vested interest to take the initiative to implement the risk management strategies described above as a first step toward minimizing injuries and any subsequent liability associated with instruction.
1. Thomas v. Sport City, Inc.,
738 So.2d 1153 (La. App. 2 Cir., 1999).
2. Kufahl, P. Business without a safety line? Club Industry
3. Santana v. Women's Workout and Weight Loss Centers, Inc.
(2001 Cal. App. LEXIS 1186).
4. Evans v. Pikeway, Inc.,
2004 N.Y. Slip Op. 24556 (2004 WL 3196946).
5. Cotton, D.J., and M.B. Cotten. Waivers & releases of liability.
Statesboro, GA: Sport Risk Consulting, 2004.