In a recent opinion, the California Court of Appeals upheld summary judgment in favor of a fitness center following allegations of gross negligence after an individual slipped and fell in the shower facilities. The court held there were no genuine issues of material fact, and the Release and Waiver of Liability and Indemnity was valid and a complete defense to the negligence cause of action that was alleged in the first amended complaint.
Plaintiff Kirk Anderson, in his early 60s, signed a membership agreement at L.A. Fitness, a health club in Glendale. The language of the agreement included a release and waiver of liability and indemnity. He suffered injuries at the health club when he went to shower and slipped and fell on the floor, eventually requiring surgery to repair his humerus.
Mr. Anderson alleged that L.A. Fitness knew or should have known of the dangerous condition.
He claimed that he had notified employees of his previous falls and had seen other patrons fall in the men’s shower. After his injury, Mr. Anderson wrote to the health club, advising them to place a “Caution, Slippery” sign to remind people to exercise caution.
In their discussion, the appellate court summarized Mr. Anderson’s contention that the trial court erred when it granted summary judgment in favor of L.A. Fitness because they had notice of the safety hazard and did not mitigate it. He alleged that this alone created a triable issue of material fact regarding whether the club’s actions were grossly negligent. The health club responded that its Release, included in part of the membership agreement, bars any claim against them.
The court stated that reviewing a summary judgment motion requires applying the same legal standard as the trial court. The issue before the court was whether the papers showed no triable issue of material fact, so the moving party was therefore entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Defendants who move for summary judgment must show an element of the plaintiff’s cause of action cannot be established, or there is a complete defense to the plaintiff’s cause of action. The burden then shifts to the plaintiff to show there is a material dispute of fact.
In this case, the court stated the general rule in California that people are responsible for injuries to others if they lacked ordinary care or skill in managing their property. At the same time, a valid release of liability does not violate public policy and can preclude liability for risks that are within the scope of the release.
The court stated the Release in this case was valid and a complete defense to Mr. Anderson’s negligence cause of action. According to defendant L.A. Fitness, Mr. Anderson was then required to meet his burden of producing evidence that showed their conduct was grossly negligent. The court stated that Mr. Anderson mischaracterized the burden of production in this case, since he contended that L.A. Fitness must show how they maintained the shower within “reasonable parameters.”
The court made clear that Mr. Anderson, the plaintiff, bore the burden of production for evidence showing a triable issue of material fact on gross negligence. Turning to legal precedent, and specifically, when a complaint alleges facts that demonstrate gross negligence in anticipation of a release, the moving defendant asserting the release as their defense bears the burden of refuting allegations that constitute gross negligence. Here, Mr. Anderson did not allege facts that supported a theory of gross negligence.
Gross negligence, the court stated, is a failure to exercise due care in a situation in which a reasonable person, under similar circumstances, would take care to protect others from harm. Plaintiffs must show an “extreme” departure from ordinary standards of conduct to support a gross negligence theory.
In lawsuits involving liability waivers for future negligence, conduct that unreasonably increases the inherent risk of an activity could be deemed grossly negligent and would not be barred by a release agreement. Here, viewing the allegations in the light most favorable to Mr. Anderson, the court stated that the allegations did not allege sufficient facts supporting a gross negligence theory. While Mr. Anderson contended the tiles in the shower were soapy and oily, this did not show a condition that is an extreme departure from what others would expect in a health club shower room. Mr. Anderson did not show the health club increased the risk inherent in its shower facility.
The court stated that Mr. Anderson’s allegations, at their best, showed that L.A. Fitness did not warn of a dangerous condition. This did not support a theory of gross negligence.
Next, the court concluded that no triable issue of fact remained to preclude summary judgment. Mr. Anderson argued that the health club knew of an existing risk and that they did not mitigate the risk. He contended that this showed they were grossly negligent. But the court stated that there was no evidence L.A. Fitness knew of his complaints. He did not produce evidence showing to whom he gave notice of the dangerous condition. Nor did Mr. Anderson present expert evidence regarding safety standards for men’s shower rooms. Mr. Anderson, according to the appellate court, merely relied on his own statement that he did not observe changes to the men’s shower room after notifying the club of the dangerous condition.
Finally, the court stated that if there were facts that supported a theory of gross negligence, Mr. Anderson had an opportunity to present these facts. His failure to do so did not warrant granting him leave to amend on appeal.
In concluding, the court stated there was no evidence that the condition of the floor in the men’s shower facilities showed an extreme departure from the standard of care. Therefore, there was no basis for the trier of fact to find that the health club was grossly negligent, rather than ordinarily negligent. The health club met its burden of persuasion on summary judgment.
The court affirmed the judgment in favor of L.A. Fitness.
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