¡Peligro! – Woman Falls from Treadmill; Waiver Fraud and Gross Negligence Alleged (CA)


Jimenez v. 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc. (California)

The plaintiff fell backwards off a moving treadmill at the defendant’s workout facility and suffered severe head injuries when she hit her head on the exposed steel foot of a leg exercise machine that had been placed behind the treadmill.  Plaintiff filed an action against the workout facility, alleging premises liability, general negligence, and loss of consortium.  Plaintiff contended that the defendant was grossly negligent in setting up the treadmill in a manner that violated the manufacturer’s safety instructions.  The defendant moved for summary judgment based on the liability release that plaintiff signed when she joined the facility.  The trial court granted the defendant’s motion, and the plaintiff appealed.

On appeal, plaintiff made three arguments: “(1) the liability release is not enforceable against plaintiffs’ claim of gross negligence; (2) the release was obtained by fraud and misrepresentation; and (3) the release only encompasses reasonably foreseeable risks and [plaintiff’s] injury was not reasonably foreseeable at the time she signed the release.”  Plaintiff had been a member of the facility for approximately two years at the time of the incident and the court described the circumstances surrounding plaintiff becoming a member:

“On the day she joined, she was directed to the Membership Manager . . . .  She was then required to sign a membership agreement.  However, [plaintiff] could not read or speak English, and [the Manager] did not speak Spanish. [The Manager] knew [plaintiff] did not read or speak English. Nevertheless, he did not call a Spanish-speaking employee to help him translate.  Instead, he pointed to his computer screen to a figure, $24.99, indicating the membership fee, and made pumping motions with his arms like he was exercising. [Plaintiff] understood the numbers, which are identical in Spanish, and she understood [the Manager’s] physical gestures to mean that if she paid that amount, she could use the facility. She could not read anything else. [The Manager] then pointed to the lines in the agreement for [plaintiff] to sign.”

The Court further explained that the Manager “did not point out the release to [plaintiff] or make any other indications about the scope of the agreement aside from his gestures mimicking exercise and the fee,” and in her declaration, plaintiff contended that the Manager “misrepresented the agreement and deceived [her].”  The Court also noted that the Manager “violated his own policy as the Membership Manager of referring Spanish-speaking customers to sign up with Spanish-speaking employees.”  Ultimately, the Court concluded that the Manager’s “gestures and pointing may very well have misrepresented the nature of the document [plaintiff] signed,” and it was “an inherently factual question for a jury to decide.”

With regard to the setup of the treadmill, the Court noted that plaintiff’s expert determined that the distance behind the running belt of the treadmill to the closest piece of equipment behind it (three feet 10 inches) was contrary to the safety instructions for the treadmill, which recommended a minimum six foot clearance.  None of the treadmills in the facility had six feet of clearance behind them.  Plaintiff’s expert stated that the defendant’s placement of the treadmill “greatly increased the risk of injury to [plaintiff].”  The Court concluded that the plaintiff had “created a triable issue of fact as to whether the failure to provide the minimum six-foot safety zone constituted an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct” so as to establish a claim for gross negligence.  The defendant “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.  It [could] be inferred that 24 Hour did so for the purpose of placing more machines into its facility to accommodate more members to make more money.”

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