Illinois Appellate Court Finds That Release Document Does Not Shield Gym From Liability in Injury Case

The plaintiff Michael Hawkins signed a release when he purchased a gym membership from X-Sport Fitness, which is owned by Capital Fitness Inc. The release document did not expressly cover the unusual hazard of falling mirrors, which occurred at the Chicago facility when a 3-foot by 8-foot mirror fell from a wall protrusion and struck Hawkins on the head while he was performing arm curls at X-Sport’s Logan Square facility. It was alleged that the mirror fell on Hawkins because X-Sport’s employees chose not to properly secure it.

The release document that was signed by Hawkins stated in all capital letters that Hawkins accepted “all risks of injury from using the gym’s equipment and facility”; agreed to hold the company and its affiliates harmless from any injury caused by negligent acts and omissions “arising out of or in any way related to the member’s presence and/or use of the facility”; and released all claims for personal injury that might be caused by improper maintenance of any “exercise equipment or facilities.”

On the basis of that release and its language, the trial judge granted Capital Fitness’s motion for summary judgment in its favor. The Illinois Appellate Court reversed stating that “Because an exculpatory clause is strictly construed against the party it benefits, the clause must identify the range of dangers for which risk of injury is being assumed.” The court added, “We are unable to hold, as a matter of law, that a falling mirror is a danger within the scope of the exculpatory clause.”

A party may contract to avoid liability for his own negligence. Garrison v. Combined Fitness, 201 Ill.App.3d 581 (1990). Absent fraud or willful and wanton negligence, a contract’s exculpatory clause will be valid and enforceable unless (1) the bargaining position of the parties reflect a substantial disparity, (2) enforcement violates public policy; or (3) the social relationship between the parties militates against upholding the clause.

The court added, “The question of whether or not an exculpatory clause will be enforced depends upon whether or not defendant’s conduct and the risk of injury inherent in said conduct was of a type intended by the parties to fall within the scope of the clause.” Masciola v. Chicago Metropolitan Ski Council, 257 Ill.App.3d 313 (1993).

Liability release clauses are highly disfavored by the courts. They are strictly construed against the party seeking to rely on them. Cox v. U.S. Fitness, 2013 IL App (1st) 122442.

In reversing the granted motion for summary judgment, the Illinois Appellate Court stated that it could not conclude, as a matter of law, that the risk of a mirror falling on a patron ordinarily accompanies the use of a fitness facility. Reasonable minds could differ on the issue of whether the incident here is an ordinary risk associated with the use of a fitness facility.

Because a broad release does not encompass all accidents without limit, a genuine issue of fact arises as to whether the exculpatory clause in the membership agreement includes potential injury due to a mirror falling off a wall.

Hawkins v. Capital Fitness, Inc., 2015 IL App (1st) 133716 (March 4, 2015).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling catastrophic injury cases, medical malpractice cases, birth injury cases, automobile accident cases and truck accident cases for individuals and families who have been harmed, injured or died as a result of the carelessness or negligence of another for more than 38 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Bolingbrook, Bensenville, Evanston, Elmwood Park, Elmhurst, Flossmoor, Rosemont, River Grove, Elk Grove Village, South Barrington, Chicago (Rogers Park, Albany Park, Wicker Park, Bucktown, West Loop, Chinatown, Little Italy), Schaumburg, Schiller Park, Lemont, Lansing and Worth, Ill.

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