Tens of thousands of New Jersey citizens join health clubs or gyms to stay healthy. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderately intense aerobic exercise every week, and many people join a health club to improve their overall health. But what happens if you are injured as a result of a machine malfunction, a slip and fall, or the carelessness of the health club staff? The answer may depend upon whether you signed an exculpatory agreement when you joined the health club.
Many health clubs require members to sign “exculpatory agreements” or “waivers” as a condition of membership or use of their amenities. These waivers usually provide that, in exchange for access to the health club, you give up any right you may have to sue the health club or any of its employees for any injury you sustain while at the health club for any reason. These agreements are known as “contracts of adhesion,” meaning that the health club requires you to sign them as a condition of membership.
In Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286 (2010), the New Jersey Supreme Court held that an exculpatory agreement was valid to prevent a plaintiff, who was injured when the handlebars of her stationary bike fell off during a spin class at a health club, from recovering against the health club. The Stelluti court explained:
In sum, the standard we apply here places in fair and proper balance the respective public-policy interests in permitting parties to freely contract in this context (i.e. private fitness center memberships) and requires private gyms and fitness centers to adhere to a standard of conduct in respect of their business. Specifically, we hold such business owners to a standard of care congruent with the nature of their business, which is to make available the specialized equipment and facility to their invitees who are there to exercise, train, and to push their physical limits. That is, we impose a duty not to engage in reckless or gross negligence. We glean such prohibition as a fair sharing of risk in this setting, which is also consistent with the analogous assumption-of-risk approach used by the Legislature to allocate risks in other recreational settings with limited retained-liability imposed on operators.
Id. at 312-313.
On the other hand, in Walters v. YMCA, 437 N.J. Super. 111 (App. Div. 2014), the New Jersey Appellate Division found that such an exculpatory clause did not bar a plaintiff, who slipped and fell on the pool stairs at a YMCA, from recovering because the exculpatory clause was contrary to public interest. The Walters court explained:
Here, defendant seeks to shield itself from all civil liability, based on a one-sided contractual arrangement that offers no countervailing or redeeming societal value. Such a contract must be declared unenforceable as against public policy.
Id. at 120.
However, the Walters court cautioned against a broad reading of the case, noting that:
[W]e do not hold here that all business operators are precluded from contractually bargaining away their common law duty owed to invitees to provide a reasonably safe environment for doing that which is in the scope of the invitation. Every case in which one party seeks to enforce contractually bargained-for exculpatory protection from a certain kind of liability must be examined and decided based on the particular circumstances of the case.
Id. at 119 n.2.
Therefore, if you have been injured at a health club, it is important that you meet with an attorney to discover your rights.