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Fitness Club’s Waiver of Liability and Assumption of Risk Clauses in Agreement Found to Bar Member’s Personal Injury Claim

By on February 18, 2022 in Negligence with 0 Comments

Plaintiff, Leah Skarbnik was a member of the defendant fitness facility, Life Time Fitness, Inc., and was injured after participating in a yoga class at the facility. She fell after participating in a “hot yoga” class. The issue in Skarbnick v. Life Time Fitness, Inc., 2021 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2068 (App. Div. Sept. 2, 2021) was whether the assumption of risk and release of liability exculpatory provisions in her agreement with defendant Life Time barred her negligence claim.

When plaintiff became a member of Life Time, she agreed to and executed a Life Time Member Usage Agreement (MUA).  The MUA contained an assumption risk provision, in which the member assumed the risk of injury in using the equipment and services at the fitness center, as well as participation in its programs.  Additionally, the agreement included a release of liability provision in which the member waived any and all claims or actions that may arise against Life Time resulting from the negligence of Life Time or anyone using a Life Time Center.

The plaintiff had become a member of Life Time back in July 2011 and used that particular facility 1,756 times between the date her membership began and the date of the accident.  Before this accident happened, plaintiff had been attending “hot” yoga classes for at least a year, six or seven per week.  Each of these yoga classes was held in the same studio of the facility.  The studio had semi-shiny dark wood floors.  The classes were fast paced and extremely hot with the temperature inside the studio set to over 90 degrees.  Before this accident occurred, plaintiff was aware that due to the nature of the class, participants would sweat and that the floor would get wet with sweat and water.

On the date of the accident, plaintiff attended a 9:00 a.m. hot yoga class at the facility, which lasted one hour.  She was bare foot because shoes were not allowed in the studio.  The lights were off and the curtains on the windows in the room were closed.  Eventually, the lights are turned on because at the end of the class another class comes in.  Because she had to leave, the room was still dark and most people were still laying down on the floor.  She zig zagged around other people’s mats to get to the door.  While she was trying not to step on someone’s mat, she placed her right foot on liquid and landed on her elbow.  The liquid was described as someone else’s sweat.  As a result of her fall, plaintiff suffered severe injuries to her right elbow, which required surgery.

The plaintiff sued the defendant Life Time, claiming that it was negligent in that it allowed or created a dangerous condition to exist on the premises – “a wet and slippery floor” and failed to warn people about it.  She did not claim in her complaint that the defendant had engaged in intentional, reckless, or grossly negligent conduct.  In its answer, the defendant fitness facility asserted an affirmative defense that the case should be dismissed because plaintiff had “assumed the risk” and waived and/or released her right to pursue the cause of action.

After discovery ended, the defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment arguing that the agreement signed by the plaintiff barred any ordinary negligence claims arising out of the fitness and exercise activities.  At oral argument, plaintiff’s counsel asked the motion judge for permission to amend the complaint to assert a claim for gross negligence.

The motion judge refused to grant the plaintiff’s oral application for leave to amend the complaint, finding that plaintiff had plenty of time to amend it before the motion hearing date.   The judge found that the sweat on the floor was a natural consequence of hot yoga and, that when plaintiff fell, she was still participating in the activity.  He found that the assumption of risk language and release of liability language in the agreement prevented the plaintiff from suing the defendant Life Time.  Thus, he dismissed the complaint.

Plaintiff filed an appeal of this decision, arguing that the agreement signed by the plaintiff was too broad and unconscionable.  Plaintiff also argued that the motion judge should have considered the plaintiff’s oral application for leave to amend the complaint to add a gross negligence count.  The Appellate Division rejected both of these arguments. 

The Appellate Division reviewed the assumption of risk and release of liability language and found that they put the “gym’s patron on clear notice of the risks she was assuming and the liability she was waiving and did not violate public policy.”  While a private gym cannot insulate itself from the duty of care owed by a business to its invitees concerning the condition of its premises, the plaintiff here fell as a direct result of her participation in the defendant’s hot yoga class.  Under New Jersey law, that type of accident can be barred through appropriate “exculpatory” clauses in an agreement with a gym’s member.

As for the plaintiff’s attempt to include a gross negligence claim by an amendment at oral argument, the Appellate Division found that there was no abuse of discretion in the motion judge’s refusal to hear plaintiff’s unnoticed oral application to amend the complaint.  Plaintiff’s oral application was improper and was simply unfair to the defendant.  Further, the Appellate Division found that, even if the complaint did include a gross negligence claim, the plaintiff had not pleaded a viable claim of gross negligence.  It noted that participants of a hot yoga class are going to sweat and “[a]llowing some sweat to accumulate on the floor during a class is not grossly negligent.  Nor is it grossly negligent to dim the light in the room.”

Thus, the Appellate Division upheld the motion judge’s decision to grant the defendant’s motion for summary judgment based upon the exculpatory clauses in the agreement between the Life Time and the plaintiff. 

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About the Author

About the Author:

Ms. Ramos is an Executive Committee Member and Co-Chair of the Litigation Department at Capehart Scatchard, P.A. located in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. She is an experienced litigator with over 30 years experience handling diverse matters. Practice areas include tort defense, business litigation, estate litigation, tort claims and civil rights defense, construction litigation, insurance coverage, employment litigation, shareholder disputes, and general litigation.

For the years 2020-2023, Ms. Ramos was selected for inclusion in The Best Lawyers in America© in the practice area of Litigation - Insurance. The attorneys on this list are selected based upon the consensus opinion of leading lawyers about the professional abilities of their colleagues within the same geographical area and legal practice area. A complete description of The Best Lawyers in America© methodology can be viewed via their website at: https://www.bestlawyers.com/methodology.

In 2021, Capehart Scatchard and Ms. Ramos received the “Best Law Firm” ranking in the area of Litigation – Insurance (Metro, Tier 3) published by U.S. News & World Report and Best Lawyers®. Law firms included on the list are recognized for professional excellence with consistently impressive ratings from clients and peers. To be eligible for a ranking, a firm must have at least one attorney who has been included in the current edition of Best Lawyers in America, which recognizes the top five percent of practicing lawyers in the United States. Betsy Ramos (Litigation – Insurance) was recognized for this prestigious award in the 2021 edition. For a description of the “Best Law Firm” selection methodology please visit: https://bestlawfirms.usnews.com/methodology.aspx.

“Best Law Firms” is published by Best Lawyers in partnership with U.S. News & World Report. For a description of the selection methodology please visit: https://bestlawfirms.usnews.com/methodology.aspx.

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