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The New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division, affirmed a favorable summary judgment ruling for the defendant Life Time Fitness, Inc. (“Life Time”) against plaintiff-gym-patron on plaintiff’s negligence claim, and refusal to grant application to amend the complaint during oral argument. In Skarbnik v. Life Time Fitness, Inc., the plaintiff brought a negligence claim against Life Time, a choice national gym operator, after she slipped and fell following a hot yoga class taken at the gym one morning. Following the conclusion of the subject class, plaintiff slipped on the wet, sweaty yoga studio floor landing on and injuring her elbow. Plaintiff brought a negligence claim against Life Time claiming it allowed or created a dangerous condition to exist on the premises, namely a wet and slippery floor, and failed to warn people about it.
As background, plaintiff became a member of Life Time’s Florham Park, New Jersey gym on July 22, 2011, when she agreed to and signed a membership agreement. The subject agreement is termed the Life Time Member Usage Agreement (“MUA”). Significantly, the MUA contained an assumption-of-risk provision, which stated under a bolded title:
“ASSUMPTION OF RISK: I understand that there is an inherent risk of injury, whether caused by me or someone else, in the use of or presence at a [Life Time], and participation in [Life Time’s] programs. This includes, but is not limited to…personal training and nutrition classes and services, member programs… This risk includes, but is not limited to: 1) injuries arising from the use of any of [Life Time’s] centers or equipment, including any accident or ‘slip and fall’ injuries; 2) injuries arising from participation in supervised or unsupervised activities and programs within a [Life Time]… I understand and voluntarily accept this risk. I agree to specifically assume all risk of injury, whether physical or mental…”. The MUA also contained a release of liability provision. Additionally, above the plaintiff’s signature in bold, it stated: “I have read and agree to the terms and conditions above, including, but not limited to, the assumption of risk and release of liability, and I have received a complete copy of my member usage agreement.”
The trial court, following the precedent set by Stelluti v. Casapenn Enters., LLC1, found that exculpatory clauses limiting a private gym from liability are enforceable under certain conditions. In short, the court ruled, it is not against public policy to uphold enforcement of exculpatory clauses limiting injuries resulting from a patron’s use of equipment and participation in instruction activity. The limiting terms of the MUA were explicit and specifically covered negligence and slip and fall. In other words, Stelluti provides that membership agreements with exculpatory clauses must put the patron on clear notice of the risks she in fact assumes and the liability she waives. The appellate court agreed that the Stelluti factors were met by Life Time’s MUA, and distinguished the incident from garden variety negligence – pointing out it was not as if plaintiff slipped and fell on a flight of ill-maintained stairs on her way into the class. Rather, it was her direct participation in the yoga class, and the natural consequences flowing from that decision, namely walking upon a wet floor, that resulting in her injury. Such liability was clearly covered by the exculpatory clause in Life Time’s membership agreement, and the plaintiff clearly consented to the same through its execution.
The court noted several other key facts in the case, highlighting the importance of written discovery, deposition and witness preparation. For instance, the court noted, inter alia, the number of times the plaintiff visited the facility, including the subject hot yoga class, the location of the class, the appearance of the floor, the pace of the instruction and the temperature of the class. Additionally, because the plaintiff did not notice any motion to amend the complaint and only orally requested to amend the complaint during oral argument on the motion for summary judgment (not during a trial or hearing) the appellate court found no abuse of discretion in the trial court’s refusal to hear plaintiff’s unnoticed oral request to amend the complaint. The plaintiff’s request, at that time, was improper under the rules.
Ultimately, it was the well-crafted language within the MUA and the plaintiff’s procedural missteps that insulated Life Time here.
The case is Skarbnik v. Life Time Fitness, Inc., Docket No. A-3229-19, 2021 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2068 (App. Div. Sep. 2, 2021).