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Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises

July 29, 2009

GINA STELLUTI, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
CASAPENN ENTERPRISES, LLC, D/B/A POWERHOUSE GYM, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT, AND ABI PROPERTY PARTNERSHIP, D/B/A PAVILION CENTER AND STAR TRAC FITNESS, DEFENDANTS.



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Ocean County, Docket No. L-234-06.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sabatino, J.A.D.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

APPROVED FOR PUBLICATION

Argued January 26, 2009

Before Judges Carchman, Coleman and Sabatino.

We consider in this appeal the scope and enforceability of exculpatory provisions in a form contract of a fitness club. In that non-negotiable agreement, the club disclaimed liability for "all injuries which may occur" as a result of, among other things, its member's "use of all amenities and equipment," his or her "participation in any activity," "the sudden and unforeseen malfunctioning of any equipment," and the club's "instruction, training [or] supervision."

Plaintiff, who signed the exculpatory agreement when she joined the club, was injured on its premises less than an hour later. Her injury occurred when the handlebars abruptly became detached from a stationary bicycle that she was riding in a group spinning class. She sued the club and other parties for personal injuries, alleging in her complaint that the club had failed to maintain the bicycle properly, provide adequate warnings and instruction on the safe use of the bicycle, or adequately train and supervise its employees. The Law Division granted summary judgment, finding the club absolved from liability under the exculpatory agreement.

We hold, both as a matter of contract interpretation and as a matter of public policy, that the exculpatory agreement only insulated the club from ordinary negligence respecting the use of the exercise equipment at its facility. The agreement did not, and could not, shield the club from more extreme conduct such as reckless, willful or wanton, or palpably unreasonable acts or omissions diminishing the safe condition of its equipment. However, because there is no genuine issue of material fact that such extreme acts or omissions caused plaintiff's accident, we affirm the summary judgment order.

I.

We summarize the underlying facts in a light most favorable to plaintiff. See Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520, 540 (1995); R. 4:46-1.

On the morning of January 13, 2004, plaintiff Gina Stelluti joined a fitness club known as the "Powerhouse Gym" in Brick Township. The Powerhouse Gym is a trade name of defendant Casapenn Enterprises, LLC.*fn1 One of the exercise rooms at Powerhouse is equipped with numerous stationary bicycles. The bicycles are regularly used in what are commonly known as "spinning classes," in which a fitness instructor in front of the room leads participants in a simulated ride. The instructor periodically issues verbal commands to the riders to change their position on the bike or to adjust the tension on the spinning wheel.

Plaintiff arrived at the club at approximately 8:30 a.m. After enrolling as a member of the club for a monthly fee of $149.00 and signing the necessary paperwork, she entered an exercise room with stationary bicycles for an 8:45 a.m. spinning class. According to plaintiff's certification, she had never attended a class like this before, and she informed the spinning instructor of her inexperience. The instructor strapped plaintiff's feet into the bike and adjusted the seat. The instructor then advised plaintiff to watch her during the class.

The bike on which plaintiff was seated was a "Star Trac Johnny G Spinner Pro" model, manufactured by Unisen, Inc.-Star Trac ("Star Trac"). The bike has a saddle that is adjustable both horizontally and vertically, and handlebars that are only adjustable in a vertical direction.

As described in the report of Powerhouse's liability expert, Robert J. Phillips, P.E., the detachable handlebars have a chrome stem post approximately seven inches long. The post contains seven elevation positioning holes, spaced about three-quarters of an inch apart. The post fits into a vertical support on the bike frame. The post attaches to the support with a spring-loaded, threaded locking pin, which is to be inserted into one of the seven elevation holes and then secured by tightening a "T" shaped handle.

Plaintiff's own liability expert, John Burgess, a college professor in physical education, explained in his report that

The handlebars [of the bike] are designed to be moved up or down in set positions using a threaded pop-pin or snap-pin which will automatically settle in the next hole in the handlebar stem since this is a spring loaded device. This positions the handlebar stem.

With respect to the instructor's role in assisting a novice rider's setup on the bike, Professor Burgess added:

Once a comfortable position for the rider is determined, with the help of the instructor for a first time Spinning participant such as the plaintiff Ms. Stelluti, the threaded handle of the pop-pin is turned clockwise to fully secure the handlebars in the desired height for the rider.

As the spinning class began, plaintiff started pedaling in a seated position. Shortly thereafter, the instructor apparently told the class to assume a standing position. Then, as plaintiff described it in her certification: the handle bars to the spin bike came off the bike while I was spinning on the bike.

I fell forward and onto the floor of the gym while my feet were still strapped into the pedals of the bike. I removed myself from the bike with the assistance from someone.

I sat out 15 minutes and attempted to resume the class but I was in too much pain and I left the gym.

At her deposition,*fn2 plaintiff elaborated that she did not feel that the handlebars were loose until she stood up from her saddle. She denied ever pulling up on the handlebars, contending that they "just came out" when she rose.

The exact process by which the handlebars became detached plaintiff's bike frame is not altogether clear. Plaintiff's liability expert Burgess opined that "the proximal [sic] cause [of the accident] was predicated by the handlebars and attached stem becoming dislodged from their normal locked position in a sleeve." He noted that "[a]s Ms. Stelluti stood up out of the saddle[,] leaning forward and putting pressure on the handlebars, the handlebar/stem assembly dislodged forward[,] causing Ms. Stelluti's fall off the bike."

Powerhouse's engineering expert Phillips, whose report supported its products liability cross-claim against the bike manufacturer, offered a more specific theory of causation. Phillips suggested that the handlebar's stem post might have been only resting on the locking pin, rather than the pin being secured into one of the seven adjustment holes on the post. In simulating that condition, Phillips observed that "there was no noticeable difference in the appearance of the locking pin as to whether or not it was engaged in an adjustment hole." Although the lower end of the stem was marked with the word "maximum," signifying the maximum allowable extension of the stem, Phillips opined that "an inexperienced user of the exercise bicycle[] would not notice this mark." This lack of conspicuity, according to Phillips, made the bike "inherently unsafe and dangerous."

Plaintiff suffered injuries to her neck and lower back in the spinning accident, and also had a tooth jarred loose. She underwent physical therapy and had injections to attempt to abate her pain. She reported persisting pain, numbness and tingling, even three years after her fall. Her medical expert, Robert F. Closkey, M.D., determined that as a consequence of the accident, plaintiff had sustained "permanent chronic pain affecting both her upper and lower extremities as well as her neck, more so on the left side than the right side."

Plaintiff filed a complaint in the Law Division against Powerhouse and Star Trac, the manufacturer. Plaintiff also sued ABI Property Partnership, d/b/a Pavilion Center ("ABI"), the premises owner.*fn3 Plaintiff claimed that defendants, through their agents, servants and/or employees, were negligent in various ways, in that they:

* "failed to properly maintain and set up the stationary bike used by the plaintiff";

* "failed to properly instruct the plaintiff as to how to use the bike";

* "did not exercise proper care";

* "caused a dangerous and hazardous condition to exist";

* "allowed a nuisance to exist";

* "failed to provide proper safeguards or warnings ...


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