Judgment Overturned in 24 Hour Fitness Treadmill Lawsuit

A California appellate court has reversed a lower court's summary judgment in favor of 24 Hour Fitness in a case involving a treadmill injury.

The Third District Court of Appeal overturned the Sacramento Superior Court's 2012 order, calling it a "drastic remedy," in a 20-page opinion filed Tuesday.

The panel said the plaintiff established a triable issue for gross negligence relating to the treadmill's setup at the Sacramento club. The panel also found a triable issue for fraud and misrepresentation relating to the liability release in the membership agreement.

24 Hour Fitness told Club Industry in a statement it does not comment on pending litigation as a matter of general policy.

Plaintiff Etelvina Jimenez fell backwards off a moving treadmill and sustained severe head injuries when she hit her head on the steel foot of a leg exercise machine in January 2011. The leg exercise machine was placed approximately 46 inches behind the treadmill, according to the suit.

The panel stated a liability release cannot absolve a party from liability for gross negligence – defined in California as a "want of even scant care" or "an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct."

24 Hour Fitness contends in the suit that no treadmill safety zone industry standard exists. However, Jimenez's lawyers made the case for a possible industry standard by presenting a section of the unidentified treadmill manufacturer's owner's manual and safety guide, and an expert's opinion stating the distance between the treadmill and the leg machine put Jimenez at risk.

Based on that evidence, the court said a jury could reasonably find an industry standard practice of a minimum of a six-foot safety zone behind treadmills, 24 Hour did not provide that minimum zone and the failure to provide the minimum safety zone was an extreme departure from the industry standard.

The statement from 24 Hour Fitness issued to Club Industry described the company's approach to equipment safety zones: 

"At 24 Hour Fitness, our members’ safety is of the utmost importance, and we want everyone to have a good experience in our clubs. Our equipment layout reflects considerations including Americans with Disabilities Act legislation, equipment manufacturers’ recommendations, members’ preferences, and our own experience that has led us to make every effort to make as much space available as possible to the rear of treadmills."

Treadmill Safety Standard

Club Industry Consulting President Steve Tharrett told Club Industry a standard practice for a treadmill safety zone exists, but he did not speak directly to the Jimenez case.

ASTM International Standard F2115-05 states a distance of 20 inches should be left clear on either side of the treadmill and a distance of 39 inches should be clear behind the treadmill, according to Tharrett.

"This standard, while not widely known by club operators, is very well known by the equipment manufacturers and has been effectively used in court cases," Tharrett said, adding that he has served as an expert witness in treadmill cases.

The court emphasized it did not pass judgment on the plaintiff's merits but was viewing the allegations in the light most favorable to Jimenez as required by law.

Language Barrier

Jimenez, who was a member at 24 Hour Fitness for two years prior to the incident, claimed her signature on the liability release was obtained through fraud and misrepresentation.

On the unspecified day Jimenez joined 24 Hour Fitness, she signed the membership agreement with membership manager Justin Wilbourn. Jimenez could not speak or read English, and Wilbourn could not speak Spanish, according to the suit.

Wilbourn pointed to the $24.99 membership fee on the computer screen, made exercise-like pumping motions, and Jimenez understood the gestures to mean that she could use the facility if she paid. Jiminez could not read anything else on the agreement other than the fee, and Wilbourn then pointed to the lines for her to sign.

The agreement contained the liability release provision.

24 Hour Fitness argued it had no duty to translate or explain the membership to Jimenez, citing a different case involving a release signed with a similar language barrier.

But the court said that specific case did not apply because there was not a claim of fraud or overreaching, and the releasee had no reason to think the releaser could not read the release.

Stating it was clear Wilbourn knew Jimenez could not and did not read the release, the appeals court reversed the trial court's ruling.