Consumers are increasingly being compelled to sign “waivers of liability” in order to engage in activities ranging from parasailing to riding in a limousine. These waivers often require the consumer/buyer to forfeit all of his or her rights to legal action should he or she sustain injury or be killed while engaged in the activity.
The legality of these waivers has been hotly contested in Florida, with courts wrestling with the issue for decades. These waivers are considered contracts, and the portion that extinguishes or limits liability is known as an exculpatory clause.
Courts have mostly upheld the viability of these contracts, assuming there is no gross negligence or willful, wanton or intentional misconduct.
Whether a claim crosses this threshold is usually considered a matter of law, determined by the court prior to trial.
While each state varies in its standard, the issue of waivers of liability continues to be debated across the country.
Recently, the California Court of Appeal for the Third Appellate District weighed in on one such case, Jimenez et al. v. 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc. The court reversed an earlier decision granting summary judgment in favor of the gym in a catastrophic injury case. Trial court’s judgment had been issued on the basis of plaintiff’s signing a waiver of liability. However, appeals court ruled there was evidence defendant acted grossly negligent by setting up gym equipment in a manner that violated manufacturer instructions, resulting in plaintiff serious personal injury.
According to court records in the case, plaintiff was a member of a local gym and was exercising in January 2011 when she fell backward on a treadmill and hit her head, causing her to sustain severe head injuries. Her head struck an exposed steel foot of a machine that gym staffers had placed three feet behind the treadmill.
At the time, she had been a member of the gym for two years and used the facilities several times weekly. She signed a waiver of liability when she joined. However, she did not read or speak English and the manager of the gym did not speak Spanish (plaintiff’s native language). Nevertheless, no Spanish-speaking employee was called to translate the waiver before she signed it.
Plaintiff sued for liability based on her injuries. She claimed the gym defrauded her by compelling her to sign a contract she did not understand.
She had no memory of the injuries leading to the accident.
The manufacturer instructions for that specific model of treadmill indicate there should be no encumbrances within a radius of three feet to either side and six feet behind. Expert for plaintiff asserted gym staffers created an unreasonable risk by placing machines closer than six feet behind the treadmill. He testified had the other machine been farther back, plaintiff would have likely hit her head on the shock-absorbent floor instead of the exposed steel bar, reducing her chances of a skull fracture.
Defendant filed motion for summary judgment, arguing the claim was barred due to the waiver of liability. Plaintiff, meanwhile, contended the waiver was void because defendant had acted with gross negligence.
While trial court sided with defense, appellate court reversed, meaning the case will be permitted to move forward.
The court noted that in summary judgment, it is defendant who has burden of proving the waiver of liability is valid, and a release alone doesn’t absolve the defense from gross negligence. The court did not determine defense did in fact act with gross negligence, but rather determined there was enough evidence they could be responsible for gross negligence.
If you have been injured in an accident, contact the Hollander Law Firm at (888) 751-7770 for a free and confidential consultation. There is no fee unless we win.
Jimenez et al. v. 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc., June 9, 2015, California Court of Appeal, Third Appellate District
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