LA Fitness granted summary judgment in contract case by injured gym member

By Jon Campisi | Apr 7, 2014

A federal judge in Philadelphia has granted summary judgment to sports club chain LA Fitness in a case brought by a member who says he was injured during a confrontation at the gym in Andorra, Pa.

U.S. District Judge Thomas O’Neill, Jr., of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, sided with LA Fitness in the litigation commenced by Cornelius Lister, who claimed he was injured in early September 2012 when a physical altercation broke out at the northwest Philadelphia branch during a basketball game.

Records show that the plaintiff was attacked by at least four other men, one of whom was also a club member, during a basketball game at the gym.

There was evidence that the basketball court was limited to members at the time and not open to guests and that a club employee who was working at the front desk had allowed non-members who participated in the assault to enter the club, according to the judge’s April 3 memorandum.

At the summary judgment stage of the litigation, attorneys for LA Fitness argued that the exculpatory clause in the plaintiff’s membership agreement with the athletic club protects it against liability in instances such as the one involving Lister.

The plaintiff had counter-argued that the exculpatory clause is unenforceable because it is ambiguous and because it doesn’t apply to reckless conduct.

Lister had also argued that there was sufficient evidence of negligence on the part of the defendant to go to a jury.

In opposing summary judgment, the plaintiff contended that the exculpatory clause in the membership agreement is ambiguous because it does not specifically apply to intentional acts by guests or to the club’s negligence in failing to prevent those intentional acts.

“The types of injuries referred to in the release are those resulting from exercise, club activities, and accidents,” Lister’s lawyers had written in court filings. “Nothing in the release states that a member waives claims arising out of the intentional assaults by other users of the club or the club’s failure to protect against such assaults.”

The judge, however, wrote that the plaintiff’s argument is without merit.

“In the membership agreement plaintiff agreed that his use of defendant’s facilities involved risk of injury to person and that he assumed full responsibility for such risk; further, he agreed that he released and held defendant harmless from all liability to himself for any damages on account of injury to himself whether caused by the active or passive negligence of defendant while on defendant’s premises,” O’Neill wrote.

That “risk of injury,” the judge continued, included injuries arising from participation by himself or others in supervised or unsupervised activities at the gym.

“There is nothing ambiguous about this language,” O’Neill wrote. “The injury alleged by plaintiff arose from his participation with others in a unsupervised activity at defendant’s club.”

On the plaintiff’s reckless conduct argument, O’Neill wrote that the conduct attributed by Lister to the defendant cannot be characterized as reckless and “plaintiff cites no authority supporting the proposition that it is.

“Plaintiff’s conclusory statement that ‘defendant recklessly disregarded its own policies’ is insufficient to make it so,” the judge wrote.

“Plaintiff has not presented any evidence of conscious action or heedless indifference on the part of defendant nor demonstrated that its conduct was more than inadvertence,” O’Neill wrote. “Therefore, the membership agreement that plaintiff signed releases defendant from liability for plaintiff’s injury.”

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