Wednesday, June 10, 2015
C.A. Revives Claim for Injuries Sustained in Treadmill Accident
Panel Says Spanish-Speaking Customer Can Challenge Validity of Release
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The Third District Court of Appeal yesterday revived a lawsuit charging the owner of the 24 Hour Fitness health club chain with gross negligence in the case of a woman who suffered catastrophic injuries while using a treadmill.
The Third District Court of Appeal overturned Sacramento Superior Court Judge David Brown’s order granting summary judgment to 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc. The panel said plaintiff Etelvina Jimenez had established a triable issue as to whether the company was grossly negligent in setting up the treadmill, in which case the release she signed would not bar the claim.
The justices also concluded that there was a triable issue as to whether 24 Hour Fitness obtained the plaintiff’s signature on the release by lawful means, or through misrepresentation or fraud.
Jimenez was a member of 24 Hour Fitness for about two years prior to the January 2011 incident. She testified in her deposition that she had fractured her skull and had no memory of what occurred, but the plaintiff’s experts testified that she likely hit or head on another piece of equipment as a result of falling from the treadmill.
The plaintiff also presented evidence that the club had 21 treadmills, and that each had a running belt that was located three to four feet from other equipment. It was noted that the manufacturer of the treadmill recommended at least six feet of clearance so that users falling from the apparatus would not hit other objects.
Had Jimenez fallen directly to the floor, which was covered by shock-absorbing material, it was unlikely she would have sustained the serious injuries that she did, her medical expert opined.
Brown granted the summary judgment motion based on Jimenez having signed the standard release, which provides, among other things, that the club “will not be liable for any injury” of any kind, “whether related to exercise or not.”
He concluded that the placement of obstructions slightly closer to the treadmills than recommended by the manufacturer would not, as a matter of law, constitute gross negligence. He also rejected the plaintiff’s fraud claim, based on testimony that the membership manager took advantage of her lack of English proficiency by failing to explain the release in Spanish or have a Spanish-speaking employee handle her membership application.
Jimenez claimed that the manager, Justin Wilbourn, merely pointed to his computer screen, which showed the numerals “24.99,” presumably the monthly membership fee, and moved his arms to simulate exercise. Her understanding of this, she said, was that her entire agreement with the club was that she would pay that amount to use the facilities.
Wilbourn said he had no recollection of meeting Jimenez, although his signature on her membership agreement established that he had signed her up. He said his usual practice was to have a Spanish-speaking employee handle signups of Spanish-speaking-only members.
Brown reasoned that the plaintiff could not prevail on her claim of fraud or misrepresentation in the absence of evidence that Wilbourn made an affirmative representation that was false.
But Justice William Murray Jr., writing for the Court of Appeal, said there was sufficient evidence of gross negligence and of misrepresentation to survive summary judgment.
Murray cited cases holding that violation of industry safety standards constitutes gross negligence, and rejected the company’s contention that there was no industry standard as to how far the treadmill needed to be from other equipment. The manufacturer’s advice established the standard, the justice said.
“Indeed, it could be reasonably inferred that it is unlikely an industry would develop a standard that violates the express safety directions of the manufacturer,” Murray wrote. It could also be inferred from the testimony of the plaintiff’s expert on health club management that the six-foot buffer recommended by the equipment maker equated with the standard throughout the industry, he said.
He distinguished the recent case of Grebing v. 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc. (2015) 234 Cal.App.4th 631, in which the court held there was no triable issue of gross negligence with respect to a patron injured using a rowing machine. The difference between the cases, Murray explained, was that the injury in Grebing resulted from a recent equipment problem that the club had no notice of, whereas in Jimenez’s case, “24 Hour knew it was violating the manufacturer’s express safety directions when it deliberately arranged the gym equipment without providing a six-foot safety zone for the treadmills.”
As for the misrepresentation issue, the justice said “it is clear that Wilbourn knew Etelvina could not and did not read the release.”
The case is Jimenez v. 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc., 15 S.O.S. 2877.
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