It’s the Law: Health club liability may be limited

Q: I heard about someone who had a heart attack on the treadmill at my gym. Supposedly, the person died. Does the gym have liability for his death?

A: Your question does not indicate there was anything wrong with the treadmill or equipment. The heart attack occurred during use of the treadmill and may have been triggered by the exercise. My answer will assume the foregoing are correct.

In this type of case, the first issue is to determine if a legal duty exists to the injured person. If a legal duty exists, the defendant must exercise reasonable care under the circumstances.

Florida’s Supreme Court has explained that forseeability is a test for finding a legal duty. Anyone who creates a risk is required to take reasonable steps to prevent injury to others. Legal duty can result from statutory requirement, case law or the facts of a particular situation.

If a legal duty is found to exist and someone is hurt, the next step is to determine if the duty was breached and that breach resulted in the injury. That is known as proximate cause. If violation of the duty does not actually cause the injury, there will be no liability.

Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal recently addressed a heart attack in a health club in the case of L. A. Fitness International, LLC v. Mayer. In that case, a patron died of a heart attack and the health club was sued for negligence by the widow. The widow argued the health club (1) failed to properly screen the deceased’s health condition, (2) failed to administer CPR, (3) failed to have an automatic defibrillator on premises and (4) failed to properly train its employees for handling medical emergencies.

In L. A. Fitness, an employee took the pulse of the injured person, found it weak, and did not apply CPR because he thought the injured person had a neck injury from falling off of the treadmill. L. A. Fitness did not have a defibrillator nor medically trained personnel on site. L. A. Fitness employee called 911 promptly and emergency personnel arrived within four minutes.

The jury in the trial court found the club had been negligent and awarded the widow over $600,000. The appellate court reversed.

The court discussed some similar court decisions. In the first case, a customer who was “passed-out drunk” was left alone on a fishing pier. He rolled into the water and drowned. The pier operator was held liable, because a proprietor “cannot ignore and step over an unconscious customer lying in a dangerous place… and must take some minimal steps to safeguard any customer… from extreme danger, even though the customer has allowed himself to be exposed to that danger in the first place.”

The court in L. A. Fitness explained the pier case was not controlling. L. A. Fitness did not ignore the injured person, and did take steps to try and help him, albeit not administering CPR. The court pointed out that no case created a duty to perform medical rescue procedures.

A second case discussed by the court involved a restaurant patron who died after choking on food at the restaurant. The court in that case agreed that the restaurant took reasonable action to give or secure first aid, where the restaurant called a rescue team which arrived within five minutes. The restaurant employees did not apply the Heimlich maneuver.

The court explained that even if the cases it discussed created an obligation to provide “first aid” to business invitees, that obligation does not encompass duty to perform skilled treatment, such as CPR. The court explained that first aid involves no more than assistance that could be provided by an untrained person. CPR is more than mere “first aid.”

The court also found no statute required a defibrillator in a health club or that health clubs have a person trained in use of a defibrillator on premises. It cited cases from other states holding that health clubs and other business establishments have no common law duty to have a defibrillator on site.

In conclusion, the court found that L. A. Fitness fulfilled its duty of reasonable care to the injured person when it called paramedics within a reasonable time. It did not have a legal duty to have CPR qualified employees on site nor were employees obligated to administer CPR. L. A. Fitness had no duty to have a defibrillator on site. The judgment in favor of the widow was reversed.

The facts and circumstances of each case will affect both duty and proximate cause. This makes it important to consult with an experienced attorney in these matters.

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William G. Morris is a lawyer with offices at 247 N. Collier Blvd., Marco Island. The column is not intended to be legal advice for specific circumstances. General questions can be sent by e-mail to wgmorrislaw@earthlink.net or by fax to (239) 642-0722. Read other columns at http://www.wgmorris.com.

© 2008 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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AED writes:

Google Fowler v. Bally Total Fitness.

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