Health Club Liability: Work Out The Law Before You Get Physical

, New York Law Journal

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Andrea M. Alonso and Kevin G. Faley
Andrea M. Alonso and Kevin G. Faley

Since 2005, there has been a significant increase in the number of health clubs, gyms and other fitness centers in the United States.1 According to the International Health, Racquet, & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), the number of fitness centers has grown from 26,830 in 2005 to 30,500 in 2012. Additionally, the number of people with a health club membership has risen from 41.3 million in 2005 to 50.2 million in 2012.2 The most recent statistics demonstrate that 58.5 million Americans used a health club in 2012.3 As more Americans use these facilities, it is important to understand the risks that come along with gym membership and the legal liability these facilities may have.

New York State defines health clubs as:

[A]ny commercial establishment offering instruction, training or assistance and/or the facilities for the preservation, maintenance, encouragement or development of physical fitness or well-being. "Health club" as defined herein shall include, but not be limited to health spas, health studios, gymnasiums, weight control studios, martial arts and self-defense schools or any other commercial establishment offering a similar course of physical training.4

In 2010, New York State had the seventh highest health club participation rate in the United States with a participation rate of 19.1 percent.5 As a result, New York has seen a development in its laws pertaining to health clubs and fitness centers. A recent Court of Appeals case undertook the issue of whether the Legislature intended to hold health clubs liable for failing to use automated external defibrillators (AED) effectively.6 Other major developments in New York State law have involved a health club's duty as a landowner, membership contracts and the assumption of risk doctrine.

Duties of Health Clubs

Duty as a Landowner. New York State holds a landowner liable if an individual is injured as a result of a defective or dangerous condition on the premises. For instance, in Rivera v. Jack LaLanne Fitness Centers, the First Department held that ripples in a health club's carpet constituted an actionable defective condition.7 So with ordinary landlord liabilities, the law requires that the person injured at a health club establish that a defective or dangerous condition existed and that the landowner either created the condition or had actual or constructive notice of its existence in time to fix it before the person's injury.8

Health club owners have "actual notice" of a defective or dangerous condition on their premises when they receive complaints about such condition prior to someone being injured. In Quinn v. Holiday Health & Fitness Centers of New York, the Fourth Department ruled that a health club did not have actual notice of an unknown substance in its stairway because it demonstrated that it did not receive any complaints about the area prior to plaintiff's fall.9

Additionally, a health club owner has "constructive notice" of a defective or dangerous condition where the defect was visible and apparent and existed for a sufficient length of time prior to the accident to allow the health club's employees to discover and fix it.10 The Second Department in Galietta v. New York Sports Club held that a health club did not have constructive notice of a spilled liquid that caused the plaintiff to slip and fall because there was no proof how long the liquid was on the stair. Moreover, "[e]ven if the defendant[] had a general awareness of spilled liquid on the stair, this would be insufficient to establish constructive notice of the particular condition which caused the plaintiff to slip and fall."11

Although a health club's duty as a landowner protects its members from dangerous conditions in the club's facilities, health clubs do not have a duty to protect its members against intentional, unforeseeable and unexpected assaults by other members or third parties. In Ulrich v. Bronx House Community Ctr., the plaintiff's son was injured during a basketball game at defendants' facility when another player punched him in the jaw. The First Department held that the defendants were not liable because the other player's unprovoked and unexpected assault of plaintiff's son could not have been prevented even under "the most intense supervision."12

New York law also dictates that health club owners, as landowners, have a duty to maintain their property in a reasonably safe condition and to warn individuals lawfully on the premises of potentially dangerous conditions that are not readily observable. However, this duty does not extend to instances where a condition is open and obvious, not inherently dangerous and known to the individual affected by it.13

For example, in Blecher v. Holiday Health & Fitness Ctr. of New York, the Third Department held that a health club was not liable for plaintiff's injury because the bar he hit his head on was readily observable. Plaintiff was a member of Holiday Health for approximately a year and had used the pulley machine next to the bar where he injured his head on three to five other occasions prior to his accident. Under these circumstances, Holiday Health did not have a duty to warn plaintiff about the bar.14

Duty to Possess Automated External Defibrillators. Due to the higher risk of heart attack victims at health clubs,15 New York State General Business Law (GBL) §627-a requires that every health club with five hundred members or more:

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