In a recent published opinion, the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed a trial court's holding that signing a liability waiver in a gym membership contract will bar a gym member's negligence claims if he or she is hurt in the gym's locker room.
In Toro v. Fitness Int'l LLC, 2016 PA Super 243 (Nov. 10, 2016), an action for personal injuries arising from a slip and fall on an "unusual buildup" of "cloudy," "soapy water" in a gym's locker room, the plaintiff challenged the gym's defenses that the plaintiff waived the gym's liability for such injuries, and, regardless, that he could not prove the gym had notice of the hazard or reason to think the floor would be hazardous.
The Superior Court analyzed Pennsylvania case law regarding the enforceability of contracts, holding the plaintiff's gym membership contract was not one of "adhesion," because the plaintiff was not forced into the contract. When "an individual is engaged in a voluntary athletic or recreational activity," the Superior Court observed, "an exculpatory clause in a contract for use of facilities is not contrary to public policy," and is therefore enforceable. The Court stated the facts in Toro were similar to those in another recent case, Hinkal v. Pardoe, 133 A.3d 481 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2016), appeal denied, 141 A.3d 481 (Pa. 2016), in which the Superior Court held the liability waiver in a Gold's Gym membership agreement was enforceable because "it was an agreement between a private individual and entities and because it did not address matters of interest to the public or the state."
Even though it held that the liability waiver completely barred the plaintiff's negligence claims, the Superior Court in Toro also rejected the merits of the plaintiff's negligence claims against the gym. The Superior Court stated that "Toro offered no evidence that the floor on which he fell had a tendency to be wet on a regular basis, or that [the gym] had any other reason to know that the floor would be wet when Toro fell." The Court rejected the plaintiff's claims on the basis that they were grounded in "mere speculation."
Comment: Under Toro, liability waivers in contracts between private individuals and entities are enforceable to bar a future litigant's negligence claims, so long as the contract is not against public policy, contains a clear and unambiguous waiver of the company's own negligence and the litigant is required to read and sign the contract. Business owners, landlords and other entities are strongly encouraged to review their liability-waiver language and bring it into compliance with the most recent legal standards.
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Sara L. De Long