Court of Appeals Reverses Judgment in Favor of California Fitness Center when Failure to Maintain Exercise Machine May Have Contributed to Plaintiff’s Injuries and Potentially Shows Gross Negligence

cross trainerIn a recent California Court of Appeal case, the court determined that a triable issue remained regarding a fitness club’s gross negligence in failing to maintain an exercise machine responsible for a serious injury to a gym member. While the lower court had granted summary judgment for the fitness club, the appellate court found that the evidence demonstrated triable issues, defeating the summary judgment claim.

In this case, plaintiffs Stacey and Ruben Chavez appealed the trial court judgment in favor of 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc. (24 Hour). They sued 24 Hour for premises liability, ordinary and gross negligence, and strict products liability after Mrs. Chavez suffered a traumatic brain injury while exercising at the fitness center. 24 Hour moved for summary judgment, and the trial court granted their motion.

On appeal, the plaintiffs argued there was a triable issue regarding whether 24 Hour was grossly negligent. Gross negligence is defined as an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct. This form of negligence shows such a lack of care that it may be presumed to show a passive and indifferent attitude toward results.

The facts demonstrate that Mrs. Chavez joined 24 Hour and signed a membership agreement, including a release of liability. By signing the release, she agreed that 24 Hour would not be liable for injuries resulting from the club’s negligence. One month after joining 24 Hour, Mrs. Chavez was injured when the back panel of a “FreeMotion” cable crossover machine struck her in the head. She sustained a traumatic brain injury and suffers severe headaches, poor memory, and personality changes, as well as decreased appetite and photophobia. 24 Hour contends in their summary judgment motion that the release of liability defended them from the claims of negligence and premises liability.

Regarding the products liability claim, 24 Hour argued it was not subject to liability because it was a service provider and not in the chain of distribution. 24 Hour also maintained that the plaintiffs could not show gross negligence in the facility’s extreme departure from the ordinary standard of care, or failure to exercise scant care.

In support of its motion for summary judgment, 24 Hour submitted the declaration of the area manager who oversees equipment maintenance. His declaration stated that a facilities technician maintains, inspects, and repairs exercise equipment. Each month, a preventative maintenance chart is completed, showing the weeks that maintenance was performed. Another declaration, from the service manager of the facility, stated that daily walk-throughs provide another opportunity to inspect exercise equipment.

In opposition, the plaintiffs contended there was no evidence the cross-trainer received preventative maintenance before the accident. Furthermore, this failure to maintain demonstrates a failure to exercise scant care by not maintaining the cross-trainer as required in the owner’s manual, and by allowing the machine to remain in service despite missing pieces designed to secure the back panel.

In opposing the summary judgment motion, the plaintiffs submitted the declaration of a mechanical engineer who specializes in the engineering design of exercise equipment. After inspecting the cross-trainer at issue, he stated the panel should be held by four metal brackets and strips, but some were missing at the time of his inspection.

After a summary judgment hearing, the trial court denied the plaintiffs’ request for a continuance. In granting 24 Hour’s summary judgment claim, the court noted that the release of liability in the membership agreement barred the ordinary negligence and premises liability claim. In terms of the gross negligence claim, the court stated that 24 Hour met their burden of showing they were not grossly negligent. They had systems of preventative and responsible maintenance for their equipment. Furthermore, failing to maintain the machines according to the owners’ manual is common. No reasonable juror would find it to be an “extreme departure” from the ordinary standard of conduct.

The Court of Appeal stated that both parties agree the release of liability does not bar the gross negligence claim. The evidence shows that regular preventative maintenance was not performed at the facility before Mrs. Chavez’s accident. The deposition testimony indicated that the facilities technician should have performed preventative maintenance on the equipment. But the maintenance chart was blank for the month, and it is unclear whether the maintenance had been performed.

Evidentiary ambiguities must be resolved in the plaintiff’s favor. Here, since there are no notations on the maintenance chart for the month of the accident, it supports an inference that no maintenance was performed that month. Testimony from club-goers that they saw maintenance being performed does not support a showing that regular maintenance was performed. Since the evidence supports a conclusion that 24 Hour failed to provide regular preventative maintenance, it follows that they failed to exercise scant care, or “demonstrated passivity and indifference toward results.”

Additionally, the court stated that other triable issues of material fact remain on the question of gross negligence. One issue is whether a bracket designed to hold the cross-trainer’s back panel in place was missing when the panel fell on Ms. Chavez.

The appeals court reversed the judgment, due to the finding that there is a triable issue of fact regarding preventative maintenance at the facility being grossly negligent.

At Sharifi Firm, we represent personal injury victims across Southern California in seeking compensation for quantifiable losses.  Contact our office today at 1-866 422-7222 for a free consultation.

More Blog Posts:

California Court of Appeals Holds that Professional Negligence Claim Requires the Negligence Have Occurred in the Rendering of Professional Services, Southern California Injury Blog, July 13, 2015

California Court of Appeals Rules in Health Club Injury Case, Southern California Injury Blog, May 26, 2015

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