Personal Injury: Exculpatory Clauses In Gym Contracts

By: Donna Russo, Esq.

Many gym memberships contain an exculpatory clause that provides that the gym member cannot sue the gym for injuries sustained during gym activities. The clause typically provides that a member cannot sue for negligence when injured during an activity except if the wrongful act is reckless or grossly negligent.

In Walters v. YMCA, an opinion approved for publication on August 18, 2014, the Appellate Division was presented with a fact pattern where a gym member was on his way to the swimming pool and tripped on a defective step on a stairway leading to the pool. The member had signed an exculpatory clause that the gym was not liable for negligence in the voluntary use of equipment or the participation in an instructed activity.

The Appellate Division framed the issue as follows: “…whether an exculpatory clause that insulates a physical fitness club, like defendant, from liability for personal injuries . . . while on the . . . [gym’s] premises is enforceable when the accident and resulting injuries sustained by the member/invitee was not cause or related to an inherently risky physical fitness activity.” The Appellate Division distinguished the fact pattern from the facts on a NJ Supreme Court opinion in Stelluti v. Casapenn Enters., 203 NJ 286 (2010). In Stelluti, the gym member was injured during a spinning class and the NJ Supreme Court found that the exculpatory clause was enforceable because the gym member was voluntarily using the equipment under an agreement that provided that the gym member assumes the risk. The Stelluti Court specifically left open the question before the Walters Court – common law negligence on the gym’s premises.

The exculpatory clause in Walters, held the gym harmless from any personal injuries sustained during sponsored activities or while on the gym’s premises. The Appellate Division held that an exculpatory clause that shields from all civil liability is a “. . . one-sided contractual arrangement that offers no countervailing or redeeming societal value. Such a contract must be declared unenforceable as against public policy.”