People go to gyms to improve their health and physical condition. However, gyms also contain hazards that can cause significant injuries—and even death. According to the U.S. Product and Safety Commission, nearly 500,000 people sustain injuries related to exercise equipment alone each year. Although gyms owe a general duty of care to customers and visitors, membership agreements usually contain a release of liability which absolves the gym for injuries caused by the negligence of the facility or its staff. The extent of the release and whether a release actually bars a claim depends on the specific terms of the release and the specific facts of a case.
Negligence despite a Release of Liability
In one recent wrongful death case in Massachusetts
, a Superior Court judge determined that a decedent’s estate could maintain a negligence claim against a YMCA despite a signed release of liability. In that case, a 62-year old man joined a YMCA as part of its “Silver Sneakers” program and signed a release relieving the program of all negligence liability. The man was later found unconscious on the floor of the steam room at the facility, sustained second-degree burns over 12-15% of his body, including his face, underwent multiple surgeries and subsequently died. The evidence supported that at the time of the incident, YMCA employees were unable to open a locked control room to shut off the steam for a considerable length of time, even after responding EMTs had arrived, because there was no key available. The plaintiff estate also alleged that efforts to use a defibrillator failed because it was not properly maintained.
Relying on the signed release of liability, the YMCA requested summary judgment in its favor. In opposition, the estate argued that the release applied to the “Silver Sneaker” program only and not to the YMCA, and further that the YMCA’s negligence rose to the level of gross negligence which, in Massachusetts, cannot be waived as a matter of law.
In denying the YMCA’s motion, the trial court judge noted that although the release absolved the “Silver Sneakers” program of all negligence liability, it did not mention the YMCA or its employees, and, therefore did not apply to them, and further that the release language did not include beneficiaries. The judge further found that the waiver did not apply to the estate’s allegations of gross negligence which were supported by the facts. The judge also found that the estate could maintain negligence claims against two YMCA officers, individually, who participated in the design of safety procedures at the facility. Unlike the claims against the YMCA, such individual claims against officers and directors of a charitable organization based on their own negligence are not subject to the $20,000 statutory charitable immunity cap applicable to the organization itself. The trial is currently scheduled for next August.
If you or a loved one were injured because of someone’s negligence, contact Attorney Robert F. Allison now for a free consultation by calling 978-740-9433 or filling out our free consultation form. We look forward to discussing your claim.