Woodland Hills personal injury lawyer, Barry P. Goldberg, is consulted on all types of injury circumstances ranging from the standard car accident case to the more unusual—health club injuries, race track injuries and sports injuries. Common among the more unusual circumstances is that the promoter or owner of the activity secures a “Release of Liability” as a condition of participation. After many years, the health clubs have ironed out the language of the releases and will not take responsibility for virtually any circumstance causing injury. This includes injury from co-participants (dropping the weights on you!) to defective machines and faulty fitness advice.
As a rule, an exculpatory contract, releasing a party from liability for future ordinary negligence, is valid unless it is prohibited by statute or impairs the public interest. (Tunkl v. Regents of University of California (1963) 60 Cal.2d 92, 96, 98.) Releases in the context of recreational sports or exercise facilities generally do not impair the public interest. (Capri v. L.A. Fitness International, LLC (2006) 136 Cal.App.4th 1078, 1084.) A valid release precludes liability for risks of injury within the scope of the release. (Paralift, Inc. v. Superior Court (1993) 23 Cal.App.4th 748, 757.)
On the other hand, a release of liability for future gross negligence generally is unenforceable as a matter of public policy. (City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court (2007) 41 Cal.4th 747, 750-751, 777.) Ordinary negligence consists of a failure to exercise reasonable care to protect others from harm, while gross negligence consists of “a ‘“‘want of even scant care’ ” ’ or ‘“‘an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.’ ” ’ [Citations.]” (Id. at p. 754; see Calvillo-Silva v. Home Grocery (1998) 19 Cal.4th 714, 729 [“gross negligence . . . connotes such a lack of care as may be presumed to indicate a passive and indifferent attitude toward results”]. Proving gross negligence is difficult, if not impossible in most circumstances. Something really extraordinary is usually required.
Injury sustained while using a fitness machine, whether or not the injury was the result of poor maintenance or improper assembly of the equipment, has been repeatedly found to be “a risk reasonably related to the use of the exercise facility and the use of the equipment,” so circumstances like that are encompassed in releases. (See, Leon v. Family Fitness Center (#107), Inc. (1998) 61 Cal.App.4th 1227, 1234 [stating that risks of use of a health club typically include, among other things, the risk of injuries due to malfunctioning exercise or sports equipment].
To be outside the scope of a release, the conduct must amount to “gross negligence.” The California Supreme Court has emphasized “the importance of maintaining a distinction between ordinary and gross negligence, and of granting summary judgment on the basis of that distinction in appropriate circumstances.” (City of Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal. 4th at p. 767.) There must be facts showing “‘the want of even scant care or an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct’ ” in order to establish gross negligence. (Decker v. City of Imperial Beach (1989) 209 Cal.App.3d 349, 358.)
Our office advises that clients actually read the releases they are signing! Short of that, it must be assumed that everything is probably covered by the release. If a serious injury does occur during one of these activities it is imperative to obtain a copy of the release and see if you really actually signed it. Second, it is important to determine whether the release covers the particular activity. Third, an experienced personal injury attorney can give you some insight whether a case for “gross negligence” is possible to take to circumstance outside of the signed release.