Fitness is a booming industry with the number of gym memberships in the United States steadily increasing over the last decade. Today more than 60 million people are members of one of the more than 36,000 health clubs in the U.S., including nearly 25% of the Massachusetts adult population. At the same time, gym injuries are also on the rise with nearly 500,000 people sustaining injuries related to exercise equipment alone each year. Gym owners owe a general duty of care to customers and visitors, and by statute in Massachusetts health club contracts are prohibited from containing provisions whereby members waive negligence or legal claims arising from the member’s activities at the club. Not only are health club liability waivers unenforceable in Massachusetts, but also the inclusion of such a waiver in an agreement can be used by the member to void the entire contract, and is a per se violation of the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Act, G.L. c. 93A, which allows the member to recover damages and attorney’s fees. Under the statute, a “health club” is defined as a facility or location in which any person or business “offers facilities for or instruction, training, or assistance in the preservation, maintenance, encouragement or development of physical fitness, conditioning or well-being.” This broad definition includes health spas, sports, tennis and racquet ball clubs, figure salons, health studios, gymnasiums, weight control centers or studios, martial arts and self-defense schools, and any other similar course of physical training.
Health Club Waivers are Prohibited
In one case a health club sued a member to enforce the payment provisions of the contract. The member maintained as part of her defense that the membership contract was void and unenforceable because it contained terms for the waiver of liability prohibited by statute. In addition, the member counterclaimed for damages and attorney’s fees under G.L. c. 93A. In upholding the trial court’s summary judgment in favor of the member, the Appellate Division of the District Court found that the “statute clearly indicates that where the offending clause appears, the entire contract is expressly rendered void.” Although the membership contract also contained a “savings clause” stating that “if any part of this contract is unenforceable, this will not make any other part unenforceable,” the court reasoned that where the statute specifically requires the entire contract be rendered null and void as a matter of public policy, it is not the legislative intent to permit regulated businesses to ignore the statutes which control their operations by virtue of “savings clauses.” The Appellate Division also affirmed summary judgment on the member’s G.L. c. 93A claim on the issue of liability and remanded the case to the trial court for the assessment of damages and attorney’s fees.
Waivers are Generally Valid
Although liability waivers or releases are generally enforceable, this case presents a stark reminder that the law contains many exceptions, and it is always wise to consult an experienced attorney to review your options based on your case and circumstances.
If you or a loved one were injured because of someone’s negligence, contact Attorney Allison now for a free consultation by calling 978-740-9433 or filling out our free consultation form. We look forward to talking to you about your claim.