Beautiful fitness instructors? Check. Yummy health café? Check. All kinds of exciting classes? Check. Happy kids? Check. Defective bikes that seriously hurt their members? Defective bikes? Anyone?
No, you won’t see those mentioned on Powerhouse Gym promos. This would include the bike that apparently hurt Gina Stelluti less than an hour after she purchased a membership at a New Jersey Powerhouse club. According to her lawsuit, which was thrown out of court yesterday, the handlebars on her spin class bike “dislodged as she was instructed to stand on the pedals. Stelluti’s feet remained strapped into the pedals as she fell forward, causing her to suffer chronic neck and back pain, as well as a cracked tooth, according to court papers.”
It’s not that the bike wasn’t defective and caused her injury. It’s that to join the gym, like most gyms, she had to sign a liability waiver. This actually included a release of liability by the gym for "the sudden and unforeseen malfunctioning of any equipment."
Somehow, I doubt their “membership specialists” point that out when persuading potential new members to hand over their credit cards. This is not OK. And that most gyms force members to sign these waivers shouldn’t make it legally OK, either. In fact, other courts have found these waivers to be against public policy. (See this 2009 Connecticut decision.) But the reality is, people unwilling to submit to this immunity would never get a gym membership.
Of course, this raises a much bigger issue, similar to another one we’ve discussed before (here, here, here) in the context of mandatory binding arbitration clauses, which have become standard in credit card and real estate contracts, applications for bank loans and leasing cars, employment contracts and even HMO policies. Like arbitration clauses, liability waivers are nothing more than corporate end runs around the civil justice system. Where Big Business and their political allies have failed to legislatively eliminate the civil jury, they have accomplished exactly the same objective here -- abolishing jury trials and eliminating the American public’s right to sue and hold accountable corporations that cause injuries.
We couldn’t have put it better than dissenting judge Justice Barry T. Albin, who said,
[T]he court has abandoned its traditional role as the steward of the common law. For the first time in its modern history, the court upholds a contract of adhesion with an exculpatory clause that will allow a commercial, profit-making company to operate negligently — injuring, maiming, and perhaps killing one of its consumer-patrons — without consequence.