Mirror Mirror Off the Wall – Fitness Member’s Injury Claim Relating to Falling Mirror Survives Release Motion (IL)

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Hawkins v. Capital Fitness, Inc. (Illinois)

Plaintiff was a member of the defendant’s fitness club.  He was injured when a mirror fell from the wall and struck him in the head.  As a result, he filed a personal injury action, alleging the negligent failure to secure the mirror or warn patrons about the mirror.  The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment based on the “Disclaimers, Waiver, Release, and Indemnification” language found in the defendant’s membership agreement.  The trial court granted the motion, entering judgment for the defendant, and the plaintiff appealed.

On appeal, the Appellate Court of Illinois first addressed issues surrounding plaintiff’s execution of the membership agreement.  Plaintiff contended that he did not read the agreement prior to signing it, and that he relied on what a sales associate told him about it.  However, the Court disagreed, noting that plaintiff had received a copy of the agreement.  Moreover, the Court explained that plaintiff had a duty to read the membership agreement before he signed it.  There was no evidence that plaintiff asked for additional time to review the document, and there was not evidence that the sales associate made any false representations to get him to enter the agreement.  The defendant also asserted that employees were specifically instructed not to explain the agreement to prospective members.

As to the scope of the agreement, plaintiff contended that a question of fact existed as to whether his injury fell within the contractual limits of the exculpatory language in the membership agreement.  Plaintiff argued that the injury resulted from a danger beyond the ordinary risks accompanying the use of the fitness club membership.  The waiver and release language was very broad and purported to apply to any and all types of negligence associated with the facility.  However, the Court stated that at the time the membership agreement was signed, neither party contemplated that plaintiff would be struck by a mirror.  The Court continued:

“If [plaintiff] foresaw the possible danger of a mirror coming unhinged, he would need to exercise a proportionately higher degree of caution around them, which would prevent him, or any member for that matter, from fully using portions of the facility near a mirror.  Should [plaintiff] have worn protective equipment, like a helmet, to militate against the risk?  Is [plaintiff] (and every member) expected, for safety purposes, to conduct a personal, comprehensive investigation of all aspects of the facility, including the quality and fit of every mirror? . . . [T]he assertion that [plaintiff] would necessarily contemplate the danger of a mirror detaching from the wall and accordingly follow a more rigid standard of caution, either by avoiding certain areas or in some other way altering habits while present in those areas, is ‘untenable according to the standards of common experience.’”

Therefore, the Court concluded that “[b]ecause a broad release does not encompass all accidents without limit (citation omitted), a genuine issue of fact [arose] as to whether the exculpatory clause in the membership agreement include[d] potential injury due to a mirror falling off a wall.”  The Court further explained that plaintiff’s claim against the defendant sounded in negligence and did not require actual or constructive notice on the part of the facility (i.e., premises liability).

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