Fitness Equipment Maintenance, Inspections Can Prevent Lawsuits

Clubs with fitness centers can be vulnerable to lawsuits if a member is injured on-site, particularly if the club does not perform regular, recorded maintenance or follow manufacturers’ recommendations on life expectancy of fitness equipment.

A column in iClubs, a publication for independent fitness club owners and executives, advocates that health clubs must heed equipment life expectancy to avoid potential lawsuits.

Litigator and columnist Jeffrey Long noted that operating a sports facility carries many risks, and discusses a case in which a small mistake resulted in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against a health club.

The plaintiff in this case was lifting two 40-pound dumbbells above his chest while resting his upper back on top of an exercise ball. The ball, which had been purchased from a well-known equipment manufacturer, split down the side and instantly deflated. The plaintiff tumbled to the floor, injuring his wrists and back in the process, Long explained.

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Although his injuries were not life-threatening and were easily treated, the plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the health club, as well as the exercise ball manufacturer and distributor, seeking more than $5 million in damages. Most lawsuits based upon these types of relatively minor injuries do not seek millions of dollars in damages, and they typically are either barred by the facility’s waiver agreement or they resolve informally for reasonable amounts well under $50,000, Long said.

In this case, the plaintiff claimed to be entitled to millions of dollars because he was training to join the PGA’s Champions Tour. He argued that despite never competing as a professional golfer in his life, he was on his way to earning millions in prize money and endorsements before his golf career was derailed by his injuries, Long said.

The accident turned into a two-and-a-half year litigation battle that cost the three defendants hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

The claim that created the biggest issues for the health club alleged that it negligently maintained and inspected the exercise ball prior to the incident, thus creating the dangerous condition that caused the accident. The specific allegations in the lawsuit included that the club failed “to conduct timely and adequate inspections of equipment for defects and potential hazards such as damage or excessive wear.” These claims were based upon the instructions the manufacturer provided with the exercise ball that indicated the ball had a commercial-use life expectancy of one year. The instructions also stated the user should check “for wear on the ball” before each use and immediately discard the ball if its surface has any nicks, cuts or scratches, because such defects could weaken the ball and possibly result in the ball deflating during use, Long said.

The club needed to demonstrate it had followed the manufacturer’s recommendations and it would be dismissed from the lawsuit. Unfortunately, the club was unable to establish when the exercise ball was first put into use at the club, making it impossible to prove that it had not been in use for longer than the one-year life expectancy, Long said.

Moreover, the club was unable to establish an inspection record for the ball. Although the personal trainers using the exercise balls with clients were trained to look over the balls before each use, there were no records to indicate when each ball was inspected, opening the door for the plaintiff to argue the ball involved could have gone weeks without being inspected for damage, Long said.

These two arguments were sufficient to convince the judge to allow the case to proceed against the health club, forcing the club’s insurance carrier to spend more than $100,000 defending the lawsuit. Ultimately, a full trial was avoided due to a last-minute settlement between the parties that was closer to the standard amount than the seven figures requested by the plaintiff, Long said.

Every piece of equipment in your facility comes with documents outlining the life expectancy and maintenance recommendations for the product. The best way to avoid an expensive lawsuit based upon equipment problems is to take every step necessary to ensure the accident does not happen in the first place, Long said. By paying attention to and following the guidelines provided by equipment manufacturers, and documenting each step of compliance, you can protect your facility from unnecessary accidents and, ultimately, avoid potentially costly lawsuits.