The New Jersey Supreme Court recently enforced a waiver of liability agreement in the context of private health and fitness clubs in the case entitled Stelluto v. Caspenn Enterprises, 203 N.J. 286 (2010).
In that case, the plaintiff joined a gym and signed the membership documents. Those documents, however, contained an exculpatory agreement, which released the health club from liability for all injuries arising from the use of equipment and participation in any class, as well as sudden and unforeseen malfunctioning of any equipment. Consequently, the plaintiff participated in a spin class and was injured when the handlebar of the bike that she was riding suddenly dislodged.
While exculpatory agreements are generally applied strictly, particularly in the context of consumer contracts, the Court justified its holding by finding that the plaintiff could have walked away and joined another gym. The Court also justified its holding by reasoning that in the context of recreational sporting activities, such as strenuous exercise, the participant assumes some of the risk of injury and, therefore, it is permissible to shift that risk from the fitness club operator to the patron.
Although the Supreme Court believes that its ruling in Stelluto will promote the salutary purpose of promoting private fitness clubs to offer activities and equipment so that patrons can participate in healthy exercise, what the Court has actually done is invite private health clubs to operate negligently and injure and maim it’s consumer-patrons.
Until (and unless) the Supreme Court revisits and reverses its ruling, all patrons of private health clubs should review the membership agreement documents in detail. If any waiver of liability is contained in these documents, then you should walk away and find another private health club or exercise at home. You should not allow a private health club to profit from its negligence because you have signed your rights away.