Feb 28 2014

Avoiding Liability in the Group Class Setting

When my 16-year-old son told me he was going to participate in a group exercise program that his school was offering rather than play football this past Fall, I was a little relieved. At six feet, 150 pounds, he was right at the top of the "most likely to get injured” list on the football field. Besides, football wasn’t really his passion, and it made sense for him to use several months of structured workouts to strengthen and condition himself for basketball and baseball, his two favorite sports.

So I was surprised when talking to a fellow father when I heard him expressing the very concerns that I was hoping my son would avoid by choosing to participate in a group program rather than football. He was concerned about his son doing the program because he was afraid he would be injured, either lifting too much weight or performing awkward maneuvers. As fate would have it, my son got quicker and stronger as a result of his very well run group program, while my friend’s son suffered a concussion on the football field, so draw your own conclusions as to whether football or the group program was the safer activity. But the point that he raised was a very good one: as effective as group training programs can be, they all present the possibility of injury if they are not run safely.

Boot camps, spinning classes, boxing classes, CrossFit programs and so many other group training classes have taken off in popularity in recent years, and it is critical for the trainers and any clubs hosting these classes that the classes be as safe as they can be. Any strenuous activity comes with risks, and mild to more severe injuries can happen in the most safely run class, through no fault of the club or trainer. At the same time, these classes encourage people to push themselves and others in the class to their limits. In fact, that is one of the reasons the classes are so popular. But the reality is that the likelihood of someone really pushing themselves to their limits, and potentially injuring themselves in the process, is simply not as great when the person is running on a treadmill or a stationary bike, or lifting weights by themselves, than in a competitive group setting where everyone is pushing everyone else.

If someone suffers a serious injury in the setting of one of these classes, the question that may determine whether the trainer or club faces a lawsuit will be whether the class was safely and appropriately run for the individuals participating. In short, was the injury nothing more than an unfortunate accident, or did the injury result from the way the class was conducted? The answer to this question will very likely determine whether the trainer or club would face liability for that injury.

The first and best way for clubs and trainers to minimize the likelihood of a lawsuit from an injury in a structured class program will be to make sure that the trainers running the class have the appropriate credentials and certifications. The best defense to a claim that the class was not being conducted safely will be a well-qualified and credentialed trainer running the class. Conversely, an injury resulting from a class or program where the trainer does not have the appropriate educational and professional background will be a difficult claim to defend.

It will also be very important that the exercises which the class participants are performing in whatever the group setting may be are appropriate for their levels of strength and fitness. The various classes that are offered typically range from beginner level classes to classes for much more conditioned and experienced athletes, and the exercises of each type of class are specifically geared to the level of the participants. While this may seem obvious from a practical standpoint, it is also very important from an injury prevention standpoint. My 16-year old son should not be performing the same exercises in his group exercise class as a Division One college football player would be performing in his class. Similarly, someone who is not particularly active or well conditioned should not be doing things that my 16-year old son is capable of doing.

It is therefore very important for the trainers who design the class to insure that the class is specifically and appropriately designed in light of the strength and conditioning level of the participants. A ski instructor would not take a class of beginner level students down an expert trail because the students would not be able to handle it, and a CrossFit/spinning/boot camp/boxing class trainer should never be subjecting beginner level participants to a program that only highly conditioned athletes should be performing. Towards this end, it is important for trainers to get enough basic background information on the participant to be sure that the particular class is appropriate for the participant. It is also very important for trainers and clubs to very clearly identify the nature of the class and the expected level of the participants.

There are obviously practical limits to the information that can be obtained about an individual and the information that can be disseminated about a class. However, it is very important for the club and trainer to take some steps to ensure that the particular class and the various exercises which will be performed during the class are a good fit for the participant. Neither a trainer nor the club ever wants to face a situation where a person is injured as a result of being in way over their heads where nothing was done to alert the person that the class was not one that fit his particular level of conditioning or experience.

If a skiing instructor is running an expert class and makes it clear to the participants that it is an expert class for high level skiers, then the instructor would not likely face any liability for an injury to a skier who was injured while trying to ski an expert level trail. However, if the instructor takes no steps to inquire about the level of proficiency of the skier, and fails to make it clear that the class is designed for experts, then a novice skier who is injured on an expert trail will likely come after the instructor. In the same way, if the club and trainer take no steps to find out about the conditioning levels and exercise experience of an individual; and if the club and trainer fail to clearly broadcast the expected level of experience for a particular class, it will be difficult to defend a claim by someone who is injured who had no idea they were in over their heads when they were injured.

Health clubs and fitness classes will necessarily lead to some injuries. However, the goal of every club and trainer should always be to ensure that the injury is not a preventable one which the club or trainer could have avoided. Towards that end, make sure that the trainers running a group class are well-trained and qualified; take measures to learn about the class participant to ensure they are in a class that is appropriate; clearly describe the class level and the expectations of the participants; and design classes that are appropriate for the fitness level of the participants. By taking these "common sense” measures you will have taken all of the reasonable precautions that could be expected. Although these steps will not ensure that nobody is injured in a group class, they will be the best way to insulate you from any liability for any such injury.

As much as lawyers may believe that our "insights” are a product of deep legal thinking and analysis, the opinions that we provide are often no more than pure common sense. With this recognition, I would not be surprised if anyone reading this article would accuse me of stating the obvious. Unfortunately, my 20 years of experience defending lawsuits, including many against health clubs and trainers, has taught me that occasional reminders about the importance of utilizing common sense can go a long way to avoiding litigation.

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