Recent Appellate Decision – Exculpatory Provisions Upheld

4cbGoAecgI recently handled the appeal of a very interesting case involving the personal injury of a fitness club member.  The appellate court upheld summary judgment in favor of our client.  The following is a summary of the case and court ruling.  A copy of the opinion is below for your reading pleasure. Keevil v. Life Time Fitness, Inc., 2016 IL App (1st) 151551-U.

The plaintiff filed suit against Life Time Fitness, Inc. and Spri Products, Inc. after he was injured while using a Spri exercise resistance band (“exertube”) in the pool.  The plaintiff wrapped the exertube around the pool ladder and was using it for arm exercises when it allegedly broke and hit him in the eye.  The exercise band was not preserved after the alleged incident.

The plaintiff had a joint membership with his wife at the fitness center.  Approximately a year before his incident, the plaintiff’s wife signed the General Terms Agreement for their membership.  Approximately nine months before his incident, the plaintiff himself signed a Member Usage Agreement.  The Member Usage Agreement included an assumption of risk for injuries arising from the use of the fitness center equipment.  The Member Usage Agreement also included a release of liability whereby the plaintiff waived any claims against the fitness center for his own personal injuries.

The plaintiff and his wife filed suit.  The plaintiff alleged negligence, spoliation of evidence and willful and wanton conduct against the fitness club and the plaintiff’s wife asserted the same with a loss of consortium claim.  After completing fact discovery the fitness club filed a motion for summary judgment as to all claims and the motion was granted.  The case continued against the exertube supplier and manufacturer and once that case resolved, the plaintiff filed an appeal against the fitness club.

On appeal, the plaintiffs claimed summary judgment was improper because: (1) the plaintiffs’ membership contract with Life Time Fitness was void and unenforceable and, therefore, the exculpatory provisions of the contract did not bar the plaintiffs’ claims; (2) there were genuine issues of material fact regarding whether the plaintiffs’ spoliation claim was outside the scope of the exculpatory provisions of the membership contract; and (3) there were genuine issues of material fact regarding the fitness club’s conduct constituted an utter indifference to or conscious disregard for the plaintiff’s safety. The appellate court disagreed and upheld summary judgment for the fitness center.

Exculpatory Provisions Barred Negligence Claims

The plaintiffs argued the Member Usage Agreement signed by the plaintiff did not comply with the Illinois Physical Fitness Services Act because the provisions in the General Terms Agreement were separate from the Member Usage Agreement provisions and the General Terms Agreement was signed only by the plaintiff’s wife.  The appellate court disagreed with the plaintiffs and noted the plaintiffs cited no case law or portion of the Act to support their position.  The plaintiff had a family membership, which required just one person to sign the General Terms Agreement. Rather than prohibiting such a type of membership as argued by the plaintiffs, the Act specifically allowed such a type of membership to be utilized.  Therefore, the agreements signed by the plaintiff and his wife were found valid and enforceable.

The appellate court next looked at the exculpatory provisions set forth in the agreements.  However, the plaintiffs conceded in their brief that if the Member Usage Agreement was found binding and enforceable, the negligence counts would be properly barred.  The appellate court agreed and summary judgment on those counts was upheld.

Spoliation Of Evidence Claim Within Scope Of Exculpatory Provisions

The plaintiffs next argued the spoliation of evidence claim was outside the scope of the exculpatory provisions of the agreements because the plaintiff did not contemplate that by signing the agreement he was contracting away his right to bring a spoliation of evidence claim.  The appellate court response was that the underlying tort asserted was the relevant factor, not what the plaintiff believed he was contracting away.

Spoliation of evidence is not an “independent tort,” but instead “a spoliation claim can be stated under existing negligence principles.” Dardeen v. Kuehling, 213 Ill. 2d 329, 335 (2004).  Since the court determined the exculpatory provisions in the agreements barred the plaintiffs’ negligence claims, and the spoliation of evidence counts related to those negligence claims, the plaintiffs’ spoliation claims sounded in negligence and were barred by the exculpatory provisions.

No Evidence To Support A Willful & Wanton Claim

The plaintiffs’ last argument was that summary judgment was improper because there was a question of fact regarding whether the fitness club showed a conscious disregard for the plaintiff’s safety.  The plaintiff claimed the fitness club knew the plaintiff used the exertube in a dangerous manner and knew chlorine from the pool could damage the tube but allowed the plaintiff to use the tube in the pool.

The appellate court disagreed and held the evidence and testimony confirmed the fitness center did not act with conscious disregard for the plaintiff because it regularly inspected the extertubes, it stored the extertubes in an employee only area and it warned the plaintiff that his use of the extertubes was not proper prior to the day of the incident.  In turn, the plaintiff ignored the employee’s warnings, never requested instruction on proper use of the exertube and he admitted the tube appeared to be in good condition when he used it.

It is always nice to see the courts uphold exculpatory clauses like those used at fitness clubs because without them, there would be no fitness clubs in existence.  So good job Illinois Appellate Court – First District.  Now go work-out – but be safe!

Keevil v. Lifetime

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