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The Power of Fine Print- NJ Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Gym over Injured Member

New York Law Protects Consumers from Outcomes like This

Injury Attorney Jeff Korek at Supreme CourtAre you one of the many New Jersey residents who have joined a gym over the past few years in an effort to get healthier? Did you sign a contract that you assumed only bound you to certain monthly payments and expectations of keeping the equipment you use clean and being courteous to your fellow gym warriors?

Perhaps you should reread that contract you signed. Recently, the New Jersey Supreme Court upheld a ruling that a NJ gym wasn’t responsible for faulty equipment that injured a member of the gym in the case of Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises.

The gym member, Gina Stelluti, went to stand up on her stationary bike during a spin class when the adjustable handlebars dislodged and caused her to fall forward. Since her feet were strapped into the pedals, she ended up cracking her tooth and hurting her neck and back, causing chronic pain.

Stelluti sued the gym for her injuries, alleging that the club   had failed to maintain the bicycle properly, provide adequate warnings and instruction on the safe use of the bicycle, or adequately train and supervise its employees.

The gym she belonged to- Powerhouse Gym– claimed that they weren’t responsible since she signed a non-negotiable exculpatory agreement. The fine print of the waiver form included wording that the gym will not be held liable for the   use of all amenities and equipment, the sudden and unforeseen malfunctioning of any equipment, and the gyms instruction, training [or] supervision.

Subsequently, the Court granted summary judgment in favor of Powerhouse Gym. According to the official Supreme Court transcripts, the presiding judge called the signed waiver agreement unambiguous and enforceable, regardless of whether defendant conduct is characterized as negligence or as gross negligence.

The Supreme Court upheld this ruling on a 5-2 vote. The court stated this in their ruling: The agreement did not, and could not, shield the club from more extreme conduct such as reckless, willful or wanton, or palpably unreasonable acts or omissions diminishing the safe condition of its equipment. However, the Supreme Court held that there was no genuine issue of material fact that such extreme acts or omissions caused the plaintiff   accident.

In contrast to the New Jersey Supreme Court holding in Stelluti, New York has enacted legislation to protect consumers from the type of clauses illustrated above. New York General Obligations Law 5-326 specifically holds that exculpatory language cannot be used to shield gymnasiums and other places of public amusement and recreation from liability for their own negligence where payment or a fee is received. The law is very clear that such agreements and provisions are unenforceable and void as against public policy.   This law was enacted to protect consumers from the sort of fine print language at issue in Stelluti.

While it is clear that the exculpatory agreement that plaintiff signed in Stelluti, stated that the gym could not be held liable for faulty equipment, it is clearly unjust to allow physical fitness establishments to shield themselves from liability when they don’t maintain their equipment or they improperly supervise their staff.   Furthermore, the holding in Stelluti does not clarify what constitutes the sort of extreme, reckless conduct or omissions which would subject a gym to potential liability. In order to ensure that physical fitness and other public recreational establishments keep their facilities safe, it is crucial that New Jersey pass legislation which will hold gyms and health clubs liable for their own misconduct.

You can view a full transcript of the case at: http://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=14525274868413889681&hl=en&as_sdt=2&as_vis=1&oi=scholarr

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