Joining the gym gives many of us the motivation we need to stay fit. It’s so much easier to exercise surrounded by others doing the same thing — and who knows, you might make a few new friends!

Health club membership contracts were, for many years, a consumer’s worst nightmare. Reacting to a pattern of abuses and problems, lawmakers in California and other states added consumer protections to help level the playing field for health club members. There are now far fewer contractual abuses (such as automatic renewals of contracts, long term “unbreakable” contracts, lack of protection in the event of disability, or inability to cancel if you move out of the club’s area) than in the past.

Of course, it’s still important to read the contract you are asked to sign and consider where you stand on all of these issues. If the contract language doesn’t protect you adequately, you can try to get some of the pre-printed language stricken out, or decide to check out the club down the street.

But there is another area that few think about when joining a club. What if you get hurt due to something wrong with the exercise equipment, falling on a wet floor, or getting bad advice about using the equipment from one of the employees?

In California, a consumer can, in a membership contract, legally waive any and all claims arising from the negligence of a health club and its employees. Sure enough, most of the major health clubs write extensive, broad waivers of claims of negligence against the club into their contracts. Once the consumer signs, those claims are gone forever, even if the member is injured by an employee’s negligence months later.

But what if a member was hurt due to a product defect (such as failure of an exercise machine)? Since claims related to such an injury would be what are called “strict liability claims” arising from “product liability,” and not negligence claims, the law had long held that those in the “chain of distribution” of such products were strictly liable for injuries to users, and such claims could not be waived by a membership contract. So can a health club member sue the club if she is injured due to use of defective equipment? That was a gray area.

When the California Supreme Court decided Ontiveros v. 24 Hour Fitness Corp. in 2008, that gray area dissolved. A member sued the club, claiming that a defective stair step machine caused her to fall and sustain injury. The Court ruled that the health club in question had a dominant purpose of delivering fitness services (like dance classes, aerobics, yoga, and health advice) to members, not a dominant purpose of providing the use of exercise equipment to members. It so held without even considering whether the injured plaintiff in that case had ever used these services!

That being the case, the member could not sue for “strict liability” because the club was not in the “chain of distribution” of the product: it was instead just a service provider. Since the club’s release barred claims for negligence, and there could be no strict liability claims either, the member had no remedy against the club for her injuries caused by the defective exercise machine. Note that the Court took into account the language of the particular contract in that case; so if you have suffered an injury at a health club, you should still consult an attorney. But the message of the case was not good for consumers.

Few of us bother to read the fine print when signing a health club contract. Even if we do, do we really want to think about all these possibilities? Maybe not, but at least we can be informed consumers. We can always ask if they will strike out parts of the contract that destroy a member’s right to make a claim if something terrible occurs. At worst, they’ll say no. If nothing else, knowing about these issues can help us think “safety first,” not just on the job but at the health club as well.

Photo credit: SashaW

Ralph Jacobson received his law degree from Stanford University in 1969. His concentration has been in personal injury for over 30 years. He has written numerous articles for the CEB Civil Litigation Reporter, a leading professional journal for attorneys.