Maintenance Mystery – Gross Negligence is an Issue of Fact for Jury in Fitness Club Equipment Case (CA)

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

Plaintiff suffered a traumatic brain injury when the back panel of a “FreeMotion cable crossover machine struck her in the head at the defendant’s workout facility.  Plaintiff filed a complaint alleging claims for ordinary and gross negligence and strict product liability.  The defendant moved for summary judgment arguing (1) the written release of liability in its membership application was a complete defense to the negligence claims, (2) it could not be liable under a products liability claim because it was a service provide and it was not in the chain of commerce, and (3) the plaintiff could not reasonably demonstrate an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of care or a failure to exercise scant care which was required to state a claim for gross negligence because the defendant’s technician routinely inspected the equipment and performed preventative maintenance on it.

Plaintiff opposed the motion, and, in the alternative, sought a continuance of the motion based on the fact that the defendant claimed that it was unable to produce the maintenance technician for deposition because he was not longer employed by defendant and he could not be found.  The trial court denied plaintiff’s motion to continue, noting that the maintenance technician had been identified many months before the defendant filed its motion for summary judgment, but plaintiff elected not to subpoena him until after it received the motion.  The trial court then granted the defendant’s motion finding (1) the primary purpose of the membership agreement was the provision of fitness services such that defendant could not be held strictly responsible under the products liability claim, (2) the ordinary negligence and premises liability claims were barred by the release of liability in the membership agreement, and (3) the defendant had met its burden to show it was not grossly negligent by establishing “it had a system of preventative and responsive maintenance of its equipment.”  Plaintiff appealed the trial court decision, but only as to the ruling on its motion to continue and as to the gross negligence claim.

On appeal, the Court of Appeal of California reversed the decision and remanded the case for trial.  Reviewing the details of the evidence presented, the Court determined that there was a question as to whether regular preventative maintenance was, in fact, performed and how often it was performed.  The preventative maintenance chart for the subject equipment for the month at issue was blank such that the defendant’s current employees could not state for sure whether the maintenance had been performed.  Additionally, the Court referred to testimony from other members of the defendant’s club that seemed to indicate that repairs were made “as-needed” as opposed to as part of a regular preventative maintenance program.  As such, the Court held that a trier of fact could conclude that the defendant “failed to exercise scant care or demonstrated passivity and indifference toward results.”

As to plaintiff’s request to continue the hearing on the motion for summary judgment, the Court held that the plaintiff’s request was timely under the applicable summary judgment statute, and it concluded that while the plaintiff’s lack of diligence in pursuing the technician’s deposition after he was first identified, the delay was not entirely caused by the plaintiff.  The defendant did not tell plaintiff that it could not locate the technician for five months after it identified him in discovery.  Prior to that revelation, the defendant had represented to plaintiff that it would produce the technician when requested.

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