In a published decision on August 18, 2014, the New Jersey Appellate Division added a new perspective on the scope of a waiver contained in a health club membership contract. In Walters v. YMCA, A-1062-12T3 the Appellate Division reversed a decision granting summary judgment to the YMCA and allowed a member injured in a slip and fall on the steps to a pool area to pursue a claim for his personal injuries. Expanding on the New Jersey Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Stelluti v Casapenn Enters., Inc. 203 N.J. 286 (2010) the Appellate Division distinguished between the ordinary common law duty of care owed by all businesses to their invitees and the duty of care related to the nature of recreational and exercise activities. In Stelluti, the Supreme Court of New Jersey upheld a health club’s limited exculpatory clause in its membership contract. A divided court denied the claim of a health club member injured when the handlebar on her spin bike became dislodged during a spinning class. Writing for the Court, Justice Lavecchia explained that the exculpatory clauses in membership agreements may protect a health club against liability for the nature of their business, which is to make available the specialized equipment and facility to their invitees who are there to exercise, train, and to push their physical limits as long as they do not engage in reckless or grossly negligent conduct. The Supreme Court did not reach the question of whether the exculpatory language in the membership agreement relieved the club from liability for slip-and-fall injuries occurring on the club’s parking lot or sidewalks. The duty to an invitee in the Walters case involved a slip and fall on the steps leading from the indoor pool in the YMCA’s Newark facility. Walters alleged that the stair treads were slip resistant rubber except for the bottom stair where the slip resistant rubber was cut off due to wear and tear. The fact that the injury occurred not while swimming in the pool or using the exercise equipment made it comparable to an accident that could have happened in any business setting. The inherently risky activities of a health club were not related to this accident. The Appellate Division considered this “a garden variety slip and fall case.” Business owners owe to invitees a duty of reasonable or due care to provide a safe environment for doing that which is in the scope of the invitation. This duty of care flows from the notion that “business owners ‘are in the best position to control the risk of harm.’” Stelluti v Casapenn Enters., Inc., 408 N.J. Super. 435, 446 (App. Div. 2009) aff’d , 203 N.J. 286 (2010). Where an injury suffered by a health club member is not caused by or related to the inherently risky physical activity of a health club an exculpatory agreement may not be enforceable. Broadly worded exculpatory clauses will not be permitted by New Jersey courts to “eviscerate the common law duty of care” owed by a business to its invitees, regardless of the nature of the business activity involved. The public interest will not tolerate transferring the redress of civil wrongs form the responsible tortfeasor to either the innocent injured party or the society at large, in the form of taxpayer-supported institutions. Despite its scathing criticism of a one-sided contractual arrangement that offered no countervailing or redeeming societal value but sought to shield the club from all civil liability, the Appellate Division limited the impact of their analysis and legal conclusion to the particular facts, leaving open the door to a case-by-case weighing of the merits of contractually bargained-for exculpatory protection from certain kinds of liability in future cases.
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If you have suffered an injury in a slip and fall on the business premises of your health club or any other business, the trial lawyers of CockerillCraigMoore Law can evaluate your rights and the scope of any waiver you may have signed to make sure you are not denied the legal protections and compensation you are entitled to. For a confidential consultation with experienced New Jersey trial attorneys, please call us at 856-795-2220 or contact our office online.