A Capehart Scatchard Blog

Plaintiff’s Liability Release Bars Her Personal Injury Claim Against Health Club

By on July 21, 2017 in Liability with 0 Comments

By: Jack Hagerty, Law Clerk
Editor: Betsy G. Ramos, Esq.

Less than three months after joining Eclipse Sports and Wellness, gym member Maria Pulice was injured at the club when a ten-pound dumbbell fell on her face as her trainer, Oscar Cortes, whom she hired through the club, was handing it to her to perform an exercise. Pulice subsequently filed a negligence lawsuit against the club, the club’s manager and her personal trainer. Pulice v. Green Brook Sports & Fitness, L.L.C., 2017 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1812 (App. Div. July 17, 2017).

Defendants were quick to move for summary judgment, citing a waiver and release signed by plaintiff when she joined the club. The waiver provided, in relevant part:

Members and member’s guests shall hold the club harmless from any cost, claim, injury, damage, or liability incurred at the club. The club urges members and guests to obtain a physical examination from a doctor before using any exercise equipment or participating in any exercise classes. . . Members shall be responsible for any property damage or personal injury caused them, their family or their guests.

Defendants’ motion, unopposed, was granted on July 24, 2015. Plaintiff, claiming the motion went unopposed because she believed it had been adjourned, filed a motion for reconsideration to present her opposition to summary judgment. Plaintiff’s request was granted by Judge Thomas C. Miller and argument was heard on September 18, 2015.

At argument, plaintiff contended she had never received a full and accurate copy of the waiver through discovery, and that, regardless, the waiver was ambiguous and, therefore, invalid pursuant to Stelluti v. Casapenn Enters., 203 N.J. 286 (2010).  Judge Miller rejected these arguments, reaffirming the grant of summary judgment.

In enforcing the waiver and release clause, Judge Miller relied upon the Stelluti case, stating:

Although there is public interest in holding a health club to its general common law duty to business invitees—to maintain its premises in a condition safe from defects that the business is charged with knowing or discovering–it need not ensure the safety of its patrons who voluntarily assume the risk by engaging in strenuous physical activities that have a potential to result in injuries. Any requirement to so guarantee a patron’s safety from all risk in using equipment, which understandably is passed from patron to patron, could chill the establishment of health clubs. . . . There has been recognized a “positive social value” in allowing gyms to limit their liability in respect of patrons who wish to assume the risk of participation in activities that could cause an injury.

Plaintiff promptly filed for appeal, contending that Judge Miller misapplied Stelluti. In support of this assertion, plaintiff relied on Walters v. YMCA, 437 N.J. Super. 111 (App. Div. 2014), where the Appellate Division held Stelluti did not apply to a liability waiver clause found in a YMCA membership agreement when the personal injury claim was based upon a “negligently maintained stair tread” at a health club.

Upon review, the Appellate Division found no reason to disturb the decision below and held that health club liability waiver and release forms are valid and cognizable once signed, so long as they are unambiguous. The court distinguished plaintiff’s case from Walters, asserting: “the waiver and release clause in Stelluti pertaining to ‘the inherent risk of being seriously injured while engaging in strenuous physical exercise[,]’ at a health club was distinct from the waiver addressed in our ruling in Walters.” Moreover, in Walters the Appellate Division explicitly held: “whether a fitness center or health club can insulate itself through an exculpatory clause from the ordinary common law duty of care owed by all businesses to its invitees, was specifically not addressed or decided by the Court in Stelluti.”

Finally, plaintiff argued that if the waiver she signed could insulate defendants from negligence, it could not insulate them from gross negligence under Stelluti. Unfortunately, plaintiff did not allege this charge in her complaint and so requested leave to amend. The court rejected plaintiff’s request because she never moved before the motion judge below. That being said, the court nevertheless concluded the argument that plaintiff’s injury was the result of defendants’ gross negligence lacked merit.

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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 25 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 and 2021, 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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