A gym member's claim of negligence, gross negligence and premises liability was shot down by the court when it found that she signed a release of claims as part of her membership agreement. A slip and fall in the gym's sauna as a result of a burnt out light bulb did not rise to the level of gross negligence to subject the club to liability.
Mansi Joshi was a member of the City Sports Club in San Jose, California. The club is owned by Fitness International, LLC (Fitness). On the day in question, Joshi alleged that she was injured in the club sauna after completing her workout. In her version of events, she relates that she went to the sauna, observed a light that indicated it was available and upon entering tripped and fell on a heating device, which caused her severe burns. Joshi claims that she fell because a lightbulb inside the sauna was out and made it difficult to see inside the sauna.
In a form complaint, Joshi sued for personal injuries claiming that Fitness was negligent "in owning, maintaining, managing and operating the business", and that it "willfully failed to guard against or warn of a dangerous condition on the premises." Fitness filed a motion for summary judgment pointing to a membership agreement that Joshi signed when joining the club, which expressly released the club from all liability. Specifically the clause at issue stated:
"IMPORTANT: RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND INDEMNITY. You hereby acknowledge and agree that use by Member . . . of the facilities, services, equipment or premises offered by CSC . . . involves risks of injury to persons and property. Member understands, voluntarily accepts and assumes full responsibility for such risks, which include (but are not limited to) injuries arising from use of exercise equipment and machines; injuries arising from participation in supervised or unsupervised activities or programs; injuries and medical disorders arising from exercising such as heart attacks, strokes, heat stress, sprains, broken bones, and to muscles and ligaments, among others; accidental injuries occurring in dressing rooms, showers and other facilities; and injuries so severe they result in permanent disability, head injury, paralysis, and even death. Further, in consideration of Member . . . being permitted to enter any facility of CSC . . . Member agrees that CSC will not be liable for any injury to the person or property of Member . . . , and Member hereby releases and holds harmless CSC from all liability to Member . . ., for any loss or damage, and forever gives up any claim or demands therefore, on account of injury to Member’s person or property, including injury leading to the death, whether caused by the active or passive negligence of CSC or otherwise, and whether related to exercise or not, to the fullest extent permitted by law, while Member . . . [is] in, on, or about Club premises or using any CSC facilities, services or equipment.”
The court found that Joshi's injury was within the realm of that contemplated by the signed agreement and did not rise to level of gross negligence, which would negate the exculpatory clause in question. Based on this agreement the court granted Fitness' motion for summary judgment and the court of appeals affirmed on the same basis.
Release of Claims Clause and Ordinary Negligence
Generally, property owners are required by law to exercise a reasonable amount of care in maintaining the safety of their property. Civ. Code, §1714, subd.(a). However, courts have held that an exculpatory clause in a contract is valid in releasing a property owner from liability and future acts of negligence "unless it is prohibited by statute or impairs the public interest." Grebing v. 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc., (2015) 234 Cal.App.4th 631, 637. Exculpatory clauses of a similar type found in the current case have routinely been upheld by California courts and found not to run contrary to public interest. Capri v. L.A. Fitness International, LLC (2006) 136 Cal.App.4th 1078, 1084.
Notably, courts have consistently found that a failure to guard against or to warn of a dangerous condition does not demonstrate the existence of gross negligence in most cases. When a plaintiff alleges conduct in the complaint that could support a finding of gross negligence, it is the defendant's burden to refute those allegations. However, when a plaintiff fails to present any facts to show conduct that rises above ordinary negligence, a production of the release of future claims by the defendant is sufficient to show an affirmative defense to the plaintiff's negligence claim.
Here, Joshi alleges in her form complaint that she entered the sauna, tripped and fell due to a lack of lighting caused by a burned out light bulb, and subsequently fell. She landed on the sauna heating element and was injured. Fitness presented evidence of the signed release form and in doing so satisfied its burden of providing evidence to support a complete defense to Joshi's claim of ordinary negligence against Fitness. In addition to presenting the release form, Fitness also produced evidence of regular inspections of the facilities and efforts to maintain safety and meet industry standards on a daily basis. Given these facts, Joshi conceded that her ordinary negligence claim would be barred by the release form she signed, but argues that the situation at hand rises to the level of gross negligence.
Release clauses that protect a gym from claims of future negligence apply to ordinary negligent acts, but not to those that may be characterized as grossly negligent. Gross negligence is a "want of even scant care or an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct." City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court (2007) 41 Cal.4th 747. In the Santa Barbara case, the court held that although a mother had signed a general release of liability form for a summer camp her daughter attended, the child subsequently drowning at the camp rose to the level of gross negligence and was not barred by the waiver. The court stated, "The distinction between ordinary and gross negligence reflects a rule of policy that harsher legal consequences should flow when negligence is aggravated instead of merely ordinary." Id. at 776.
Case law addressing the waiver for future liability have held that the following may constitute gross negligence:
- Conduct that substantially or unreasonably increases the inherent risk of an activity
- Actively concealing a risk
- An extreme departure from the manufacturer's safety directions or industry standards. Santa Barbara at 754; Anderson v. Fitness, Int'l, 4 Cal.App.5th 867, 881
In the case of hand, Joshi argues that the club's failure to replace the light bulb in the sauna constituted gross negligence. She points to evidence that an employee of the club performed a walk through the day of the incident and noted that the women's sauna needed repair. She argues that the club's failure to replace the light bulb when they knew it was burnt out went beyond ordinary negligence. Her retained expert bolstered this theory by arguing that the sauna is considered a "high risk area" of a gym and requires consistent upkeep and monitoring. Joshi further claims that the club's failure to fix the light bulb earlier in the day at a minimum creates a triable issue of fact as to gross negligence.
Fitness argued that the release Joshi signed applies to the incident and that the club's actions did not rise to the level of gross negligence. The trial court found that the release clearly covered Joshi's fall in the sauna as it applied to "accidental injury in dressing rooms, showers and other facilities." On appeal, the court found that the lower court was correct in its finding that Joshi's injury was caused by ordinary negligence and was therefore barred by the provisions of the release she signed when joining the club. The language of the agreement was sufficiently broad and encompassing to logically include an accidental trip and fall in the sauna facility. Nothing in the record supported a finding of the extreme action necessary to prove gross negligence.
In order to prove premises liability, a plaintiff must provide evidence that the owner of the property knew or reasonably should have known about the dangerous condition on the property. In the California Supreme Court case, Ortega v. Kmart Corp, (2001) 2 Cal.4th 1200, 106, the court stated, "Because an owner is not the insurer of a visitor's personal safety, the owner's actual or constructive knowledge of the dangerous condition is a key to establishing liability. Where the plaintiff relies on the failure to correct a dangerous condition to prove the owner's negligence, the plaintiff has the burden of showing that the owner had notice of the defect in sufficient time to correct it."
Here, Joshi claims that the inspection report taken on May 1st is sufficient to show that the club was aware of the dangerous lighting situation in the sauna. She failed to produce that report, however, and there is no indication of what time that inspection took place. The court noted that the inspection could have occurred before her injury or after. Based on the evidence presented there is no way for the court to determine the timing. Therefore, Joshi failed to show that Fitness had actual or constructive knowledge of the burnt out lightbulb and the claim for premises liability fails.
The trial court's granting of a motion of summary judgment for Fitness was proper on all claims of negligence. The judgment was affirmed.