Weightlifter Assumed Inherent Risk of Injury, California Court Upholds Judgment in Favor of Gym

The California Court of Appeal affirmed a trial court judgment in favor of a gym in a personal injury lawsuit in which the plaintiff alleged product liability, negligence, and premises liability claims.  After suffering injuries while lifting weights, the plaintiff in this case sought damages against the gym.  The court analyzed whether the plaintiff had a viable product liability claim and found that as a fitness service provider, the gym was not liable for his injuries.  Additionally, the plaintiff’s allegations of harm were barred by the doctrine of primary assumption of risk.  In this case, the plaintiff had assumed the risk of harm inherent in lifting weights, and the gym had not increased that inherent risk.

The plaintiff in this personal injury lawsuit had been using a “hack squat” exercise machine at the gym in San Francisco. The machine strengthens quadriceps muscles as the user performs squats by raising and lowering legs and pushing the weight apparatus up and down. The machine did not have a “safety brake,” which prevents the weight apparatus from descending to the bottom of the frame if the user cannot return the weight to the starting position.  While performing exercises, the plaintiff’s legs got tired, and he could not return the weight to the starting position.  As the weight descended, the plaintiff was forced into a “crunched position” and suffered injuries.

The plaintiff sued the manufacturer of the machine, the gym, and affiliated entities.  The gym moved for summary judgment, and the court granted the motion, finding that the machine had not been deficient and that the product liability claims failed because the gym provided services, rather than products. The court also found that the plaintiff assumed the risk of harm according to the membership agreement, and therefore his premises liability and negligence claims were barred.

On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the trial court erred in finding that the gym provided fitness services, since he only used the free weight machines. The appellate court stated that strict product liability originally only applied to manufacturers of defective products and then extended to those who play a role in the marketing and production of a defective product.  According to the court, the doctrine does not apply to situations in which the transaction service predominates, and product sale is incidental to service.  In other words, providers of services are generally not liable for harm under a product liability theory of law.

According to the facts, the court stated that the gym offered fitness services to members, and while the plaintiff contended he did not use those services, there was no indication that he communicated that to the gym, nor was there a showing that his membership did not include fitness services.  Citing precedent, the court stated that the “dominant purpose” of the plaintiff’s gym membership was the use of fitness services. The court stated the plaintiff’s product liability claims failed.

Regarding the plaintiff’s negligence claims, the appellate court stated the rule for primary assumption of the risk, which bars claims for personal injury when the plaintiff suffers an injury because of a risk that is inherent in a sport or activity.  The defendants, however, may not increase the risk of injury over that which is inherent. It is a legal question, to be determined by the court, as to which risks are inherent in an activity.

Here, the plaintiff argued the gym increased the risk inherent in using the hack squat machine because, according to the plaintiff, the gym normally offers machines with a safety break (at other locations). The gym contended that the plaintiff was asking them to minimize the risks inherent in physical fitness activity.

The court stated that the plaintiff had not shown the gym violated its duty not to increase the inherent risks of using the machine.  The inherent risk of weightlifting is the risk the user will become strained or tired and drop weights or not be able to complete the exercise.  Here, the gym did not design or manufacture the exercise equipment. The court stated that the gym purchases or leases the machines from manufacturers.

The plaintiff, according to the court, had not alleged that the gym negligently inspected or maintained the equipment, nor that the machine did not work as intended.  Instead, the court stated the plaintiff argued that the gym “set a trap” for him to injure himself by using a machine without a safety brake.  But the court stated that the plaintiff’s subjective awareness is not relevant for primary assumption of the risk.  The court stated that the plaintiff had not shown the safety brakes were required or expected.

According to the appellate court, the plaintiff failed to create a triable issue of material fact regarding whether the gym had violated its duty not to increase the risk that is inherent to lifting weights. The primary assumption of risk barred his negligence claims.

The judgment in favor of the gym was affirmed.

The Southern California premises liability attorneys at Sharifi Firm represent accident victims as they pursue their legal right to compensation for their injuries. Call us to understand your legal rights and obligations. We offer a complimentary consultation and can be reached at 1-866-422-7222.

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