Pennsylvania: Appellate—Superior Court Affirms Validity of Exculpatory Clause in Gym Membership

05/25/18

Vinson v. Fitness International, LLC, No. 2875 EDA 2016, PA Superior Court

On May 4, 2018, a three-judge panel of the Pennsylvania Superior Court issued an unanimous Opinion affirming the trial court’s order granting summary judgment to Fitness International, LLC, et al. (“L.A. Fitness”) in a lawsuit filed by an L.A. Fitness member for personal injuries the member allegedly sustained at an L.A. Fitness facility as she walked from the swimming pool to the showers adjacent to the pool. 

Plaintiff Dolores Vinson filed suit against L.A. Fitness in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County claiming she tripped and fell on a wet floor mat which was “worn” at the time of her accident.  Plaintiff’s Complaint alleged L.A. Fitness was negligent for failing to remove the worn floor mat that caused her to fall; failing to reasonably inspect or maintain the premises; and failing to warn her of a defective condition of the floor mat. 

Rawle & Henderson LLP defended L.A. Fitness in the lawsuit. They filed an Answer to plaintiff’s Complaint with New Matter claiming, inter alia, that Vinson’s claim was barred by the Release and Waiver Clause in the Membership Agreement she had signed when she joined L.A. Fitness.  When Vinson originally joined L.A. Fitness, she had been given a three page Membership Agreement which contained L.A. Fitness’ Membership Policies and Club Rules and Regulations, as well as a Release and Waiver of Liability and Indemnity Clause.  The Release and Waiver of Liability Clause specifically stated that the Clause released L.A. Fitness from claims for bodily injury occurring on or about the L.A. Fitness’ premises, including those “caused by the active or passive negligence of L.A. Fitness.”  In addition, the Clause specifically listed the types of risks covered by the Clause, including “accidental injuries occurring anywhere in Club dressing rooms, showers, or other facilities.” 

Plaintiff filed an Answer opposing L.A. Fitness’ Motion for Summary Judgment, arguing that the Release and Waiver Clause was void against public policy.  The trial court rejected plaintiff’s argument and granted L.A. Fitness’ Motion for Summary Judgment based on the Waiver of Liability Clause. 

Plaintiff filed an appeal of the trial court’s order granting summary judgment to the Pennsylvania Superior Court.  Rawle & Henderson LLP represented L.A. Fitness in plaintiff’s appeal to the Superior Court.  In her appeal, plaintiff again contended that the Release and Waiver of Liability Clause was invalid because it contravened public policy since it involved “a vital matter of public health and safety.”  In their brief opposing plaintiff’s appeal, attorneys Buchholz and Heim relied extensively on a prior opinion that they had obtained from the Superior Court regarding the enforceability of this exact same Exculpatory Clause in Toro v. Fitness International LLC, 150 A.3d 968 (Pa. Super. 2016). 

Plaintiff’s counsel tried to distinguish the Superior Court’s prior holding in Toro, which involved a slip and fall on an alleged transitory slippery condition on a bathroom floor, by arguing that Vinson’s claim involved “a systemic problem with facility maintenance” which “involved a vital matter of public health and safety.”  Vinson’s attorney also argued that Vinson might not have even have been given the Exculpatory Clause to review because it was printed on the second page of the Membership Agreement and she had only signed the first page of the Agreement. 

The three-judge panel of the Superior Court rejected plaintiff’s argument that the allegedly defective mat made her claim a matter of “public policy” which would have invalidated the Exculpatory Clause.  Rather, the panel held that plaintiff’s claim was barred by the Superior Court’s prior decision in Toro “because both cases involve private individuals engaged in recreational activity, which is not classifiable as a matter of public or state interest.” 

The panel also specifically noted its support for a prior holding of an en banc panel of the Superior Court in Hinkal v. Pardo, 133 A.3d 738 (Pa. Super. 2016), appeal denied, 141 A.3d 481 (Pa. 2016), that personal training services also do not concern “health and safety” to the extent necessary to invalidate a Waiver of Liability Clause in a gym membership agreement. 

Further, the panel specifically found that Vinson’s claim that she might not have even been given the Exculpatory Clause to review because it was printed on the second page of the Membership Agreement since she only signed the first page of the Agreement was without any merit because she signed the first page of the Membership Agreement under language which stated that she “has received a filled-in and completed copy of the Agreement has read and understands the entire agreement including but not limited to . . . the Release and Waiver of Liability and Indemnity”.  The panel then cited the Superior Court’s prior holding in In re Estate of Olson, 291 A.2d 95, 98 (Pa. 1972):   

[F]ailure to read [the contract] is an unavailing excuse for defense and cannot justify an avoidance, modification or nullification of the contract or any provision thereof.

Vinson is an important expansion of the Superior Court’s prior holdings enforcing the waiver of liability clauses in gym memberships in Toro and Hinkal by holding that an alleged defective condition on the gym property “is not classifiable as a matter of public or state interest.”  The Superior Court’s enforcement of the Waiver of Liability Clause in gym membership agreements in Hinkal, Toro, and Vinson allows gyms and recreational facilities in Pennsylvania to reduce their insurance premiums and to offer lower membership fees to consumers. 

Although the Superior Court panel initially issued its decision as an “Unpublished Opinion” which could not be cited as authority in future cases, the panel granted Rawle & Henderson’s motion to reissue its opinion as “Published” so it could be cited as binding authority in future cases.