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California Health Club Not Liable for Weightlifting Injuries

April 26, 2017


A California Appeals Court ruled earlier this year in a case that touched upon the various legal claims that can be involved in personal injury cases.

The plaintiff was a member of the fitness chain 24 Hour Fitness. On one occasion while exercising, he used a “hack squat” machine. The health club had two of the machines, one that had a safety catch and one that did not. On the day of the incident, the plaintiff was using the machine, and his legs became tired, so he was unable to return the weight to the required height. Since the machine he was using did not have a catch, the weights descended too low for comfort, causing the plaintiff to suffer an injury.

The plaintiff filed suit against the maker of the machine, the health club, and other affiliated entities, alleging products liability claims based upon negligence, strict liability, and breach of warranty in addition to claims for premises liability and negligence.

In its defense, 24 Hour moved for summary judgment and introduced the plaintiff’s signed membership agreement as evidence, which stated that the main terms of the agreement involved the offering of exercise training services. The plaintiff objected to its introduction and claimed he did not sign it.

The trial court granted 24 Hour’s motion. It found that the machine the plaintiff used was not defective, and furthermore, the products liability claim failed on the basis that 24 Hour was not a provider of products. It found that the plaintiff’s premises liability and negligence claims were barred by the legal doctrine of primary assumption of the risk. The plaintiff then appealed.

The plaintiff first challenged the argument that 24 Hour Fitness was entitled to summary judgment on the products liability claim because the court found that it did not provide products but instead services. The plaintiff objected on the ground that he never used the services but instead only the relevant weight training equipment. On appeal, the court agreed with 24 Hour that it did not manufacture or design equipment, and it provided fitness services generally to its members.

While the umbrella of products liability has been extended under California law to implicate those that are integral to the marketing or distribution of products, the court did not find that 24 Hour fell under that purview. Instead, it found that the current case was similar to another case against 24 Hour, Ontiveros v. 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc. (2008), 169 Cal.App.4th 424. There, the court similarly failed to find liability for the defendant to a plaintiff who had become injured by using a rowing machine. It found that the membership agreement explicitly stated that the club offered services, and therefore its primary purpose was not related to products or the liability implied from manufacturing them.

The plaintiff tried to argue that his case was distinguishable from the similar case by claiming that he never signed the membership agreement, which stated the furnishing of fitness services was central to the agreement, and that his intent in joining the club was solely to use the equipment. The court failed to find his arguments compelling, pointing to the prior case for the rule that “it is the terms of her agreement, rather than her subjective intentions, that define the dominant purpose of her transaction with defendant.” Ontiveros v. 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc. (2008) 169 Cal.App.4th 424, 434. It thus upheld the trial court’s decision regarding an insufficient products liability claim.

Regarding the primary assumption of risk, the appeals court restated the relevant rule that while claims for personal injury are barred when the plaintiff is injured by a risk inherent in a sport or activity itself, the defendant maintains a duty to not act in a way that increases the potential risk of injury to greater than the risk inherent in the activity. The court found that the plaintiff did not establish that 24 Hour violated this duty with regard to the inherent risk of weightlifting. The court found that the plaintiff also did not allege that the defendant was negligent in inspecting or maintaining the hack squat machine or that the machine did not function as intended.

The plaintiff argued that he was misled by the other machine having a safety element, but the court found that the plaintiff’s subjective knowledge was not relevant in determining the duty on behalf of the defendant. The plaintiff further did not introduce any evidence suggesting that the safety catch was required by law, was an industry standard, or was expected by ordinary consumers. Therefore, the court found, he failed to create an issue of material fact as to whether the defendant violated any of the duties required by law in order to support his various claims.

The judgment was thus affirmed.

When someone is hurt as a direct result of a defective product, the manufacturer or another party involved in the distribution of the product can be held responsible. If you or a family member has been seriously injured by a defective product, contact the Rubinstein Law Group to schedule a free consultation with our defective product lawyer in Oceanside.

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