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Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises

August 5, 2010

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 certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 408 N.J. Super. 435 (2009).

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

The Court considers whether a pre-injury waiver of liability agreement that the plaintiff, Gina Stelluti, signed when she became a member at a private fitness center precludes her from recovering for her injuries.

On January 13, 2004, Stelluti entered into an agreement with defendant Powerhouse Gym (Powerhouse) for membership at its Brick, New Jersey facility. As part of the process of joining the facility, Stelluti signed and dated a waiver and release form. The form stated, in part, that the member assumed all risks of negligence on the part of Powerhouse, including injury from malfunctioning equipment. The same day that Stelluti signed the form and became a member, she participated in a spinning class. As the class began, the participants started out pedaling the spin bikes in a seated position. Shortly afterward, the instructor told the participants to change from a seated to a standing position on their bikes. When Stelluti rose to a standing position, the adjustable handlebars dislodged from the bike. She fell forward while her feet remained strapped to the pedals. Stelluti's injuries included pain in her neck and shoulders, soreness in her thighs and back, a cracked tooth, and bruises. She later was diagnosed with back and neck strain and alleges that she suffers from chronic pain associated with myofascial pain syndrome.

Stelluti filed a complaint against Powerhouse and others. With regard to Powerhouse, Stelluti alleged negligence in failing to maintain and set up the bike, failing to properly instruct her on its use, failing to provide warnings and safe equipment, and other claims. Powerhouse filed a motion for summary judgment based on the waiver of liability agreement that Stelluti signed. The trial court granted the motion, finding that 1) the waiver agreement was enforceable because Powerhouse was not subject to a requirement to perform under a specific duty imposed by law; 2) the waiver was not unconscionable and Stelluti read and understood the agreement's provisions; and 3) the exculpatory language in the waiver agreement covered claims sounding in both negligence and gross negligence.

The Appellate Division affirmed. 408 N.J. Super. 435 (App. Div. 2009). The panel held that the agreement was not unconscionable and therefore was valid. However, it determined that the agreement could only immunize Powerhouse from ordinary negligence and not from reckless, willful or wanton, or palpably unreasonable behavior. Because the facts in this matter did not support a claim for more than ordinary negligence, the panel held that summary judgment in favor of Powerhouse was proper. The Supreme Court granted Stelluti's petition for certification. 200 N.J. 502 (2009).

HELD: The Court affirms the judgment of the Appellate Division, which upheld the dismissal of plaintiff Gina Stelluti's negligence claims against defendant Powerhouse Gym for injuries she sustained on exercise equipment. It is not contrary to the public interest, or to a legal duty owed, to enforce the pre-injury waiver of liability agreement that Stelluti entered into with Powerhouse Gym, which limited the gym's liability for injuries arising from a patron's participation in instructed activity and voluntary use of the gym's equipment.

1. A contract of adhesion is defined as one presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, commonly in a standardized printed form, without opportunity for the adhering party to negotiate. Although a contract of adhesion may require one party to choose either to accept or reject it as is, the agreement may be enforced. Here, Powerhouse's agreement was a contract of adhesion, but Stelluti was not in a position of unequal bargaining power such that the contract must be voided. Stelluti could have taken her business to another fitness club, could have found another means of exercising aside from joining a gym, or could have sought advice before signing up and using the facility's equipment. The agreement was not void based on any notion of procedural unconscionability. (Pp. 15-18)

2. In considering whether the agreement was enforceable even though it was exculpatory, the Court agrees with the trial court's determination that Stelluti understood the terms of the agreement. The Court then considers whether Powerhouse had a legal duty to perform that governs here. The Court previously has recognized that certain activities require the participant to assume some risk because injuries are common. For such activities, the standard of care to be met must exceed mere negligence because the risk of injury cannot be eliminated through the exercise of reasonable care. Furthermore, although the Legislature has enacted statutes that allocate the risks and responsibilities of the parties who control and those who participate in certain types of recreational activities, it has not addressed private fitness centers. However, the common sense behind a risk-sharing approach does not make it unreasonable to employ exculpatory agreements, within limits, in private contractual arrangements between fitness centers and their patrons. (Pp. 18-29)

3. To determine whether the public interest would be adversely affected by enforcement of the exculpatory agreement in this matter, the Court engages in a balancing of public-policy interests. The Court explains that, by its nature, exercising entails vigorous physical exertion. Injuries are common and may result from faulty equipment, improper use of equipment, inadequate instruction, inexperience, poor physical condition of the user, or excessive exertion. Although there is a public interest in holding a health club to its duty to maintain its premises in a condition safe from defects that it is charged with knowing or discovering, it need not ensure the safety of its patrons who voluntarily assume some risk by engaging in strenuous physical activities that have a potential to result in injuries. Any requirement to guarantee a patron's safety from all risk in using equipment that is passed from patron to patron could chill the establishment of health clubs, which perform a salutary purpose by offering activities and equipment so that patrons can enjoy challenging physical exercise. However, it would be contrary to the public interest to condone willful blindness to problems that arise with the equipment provided for patrons' use. Therefore, the Court holds private fitness centers to a duty not to engage in reckless or gross negligence. If Powerhouse's management or employees had been aware of a piece of defective exercise equipment and failed to remedy the condition or warn adequately of the dangerous condition, or if Powerhouse had dangerously or improperly maintained equipment, it could not exculpate itself from such reckless or gross negligence. The record in this matter, however, does not support such a showing. (Pp. 29-34)

4. The Court holds that it is not contrary to the public interest, or to a legal duty owed, to enforce Powerhouse's agreement limiting its liability for injuries sustained as a matter of negligence that resulted from a patron's voluntary use of equipment and participation in instructed activity. The exculpatory agreement between Powerhouse and Stelluti is enforceable as to the injury she sustained when riding the spin bike. (Pp. 34)

The judgment of the Appellate Division that sustained the summary judgment award to Powerhouse is AFFIRMED.

JUSTICE ALBIN, DISSENTING, joined by JUSTICE LONG, believes that the exculpatory clause in this matter should be void as against public policy because it unfairly allocates the risk from the commercial operator, who is in the best position to remove and prevent dangers on the premises, to an unwary patron. He maintains that the majority's opinion will encourage a lack of due care on the part of commercial entities.

CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES WALLACE, RIVERA-SOTO and HOENS join in JUSTICE LaVECCHIA's opinion. JUSTICE ALBIN, joined by JUSTICE LONG, filed a separate, dissenting opinion.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice LaVECCHIA

Argued March 9, 2010

On January 13, 2004, while participating in a spinning*fn1 class at a private fitness center, the handlebars on plaintiff Gina Stelluti's spin bike dislodged from the bike, causing her to fall and suffer injuries. In this appeal we must determine whether plaintiff should be bound to a pre-injury waiver of liability that she executed in connection with her membership application and agreement. We conclude, for the reasons expressed herein, that the exculpatory agreement between the fitness center and Stelluti is enforceable as to the injury Stelluti sustained when riding the spin bike. In doing so we reject the argument that limited liability waivers are per se invalid in private fitness center venues. Our decision affirms the Appellate Division judgment that upheld the dismissal of plaintiff's claim.

I.

Stelluti entered into an agreement with defendant Powerhouse Gym*fn2 for membership at its Brick, New Jersey facility. To do so, she filled out three forms: a "Membership Agreement" form; a "Member Information" form; and a "Health/Safety Consent" form. The "Member Agreement" and "Member Information" forms requested basic personal information. The "Health/Safety Consent" form asked a series of questions about the patron's physical condition, and further, required a patron answering "yes" to any question to submit a doctor's note before commencing physical activity. The form also encouraged patrons to wear "proper footwear and attire," to ask for assistance with equipment or classes, and to notify the manager if medical assistance was needed.

Stelluti completed the forms, signed and dated them, and answered "no" in response to all questions on the "Health/Safety Consent" form. That same day, she also signed and dated a "Powerhouse Fitness (The Club) Waiver & Release Form" (waiver).*fn3

The waiver, a standard pre-printed form drafted exclusively for Powerhouse, provided as follows:

POWERHOUSE FITNESS (The Club)

WAIVER & RELEASE FORM

Because physical exercise can be strenuous and subject to risk of serious injury, the club urges you to obtain a physical examination from a doctor before using any exercise equipment or participating in any exercise activity. You (each member, guest, and all participating family members) agree that if you engage in any physical exercise or activity, or use any club amenity on the premises or off premises including any sponsored club event, you do so entirely at your own risk. Any recommendation for changes in diet including the use of food supplements, weight reduction and or body building enhancement products are entirely your responsibility and you should consult a physician prior to undergoing any dietary or food supplement changes. You agree that you are voluntarily participating in these activities and use of these facilities and premises and assume all risks of injury, illness, or death. We are also not responsible for any loss of your personal property.

This waiver and release of liability includes, without limitation, all injuries which may occur as a result of, (a) your use of all amenities and equipment in the facility and your participation in any activity, class, program, personal training or instruction, (b) the sudden and unforeseen malfunctioning of any equipment, (c) our instruction, training, supervision, or dietary recommendations, and (d) your slipping and/or falling while in the club, or on the club premises, including adjacent sidewalks and parking areas.

You acknowledge that you have carefully read this "waiver and release" and fully understand that it is a release of liability. You expressly agree to release and discharge the health club, and all affiliates, employees, agents, representatives, successors, or assigns, from any and all claims or causes of action and you agree to voluntarily give up or waive any right that you may otherwise have to bring a legal action against the club for personal injury or property damage.

To the extent that statute or case law does not prohibit releases for negligence, this release is also for negligence on the part of the Club, its agents, and employees.

If any portion of this release from liability shall be deemed by a Court of competent jurisdiction to be invalid, then the remainder of this release from liability shall remain in full force and effect and the offending provision or provisions severed here from.

By signing this release, I acknowledge that I understand its content and that this release cannot be modified orally.

Signed: /s/ Gina Stelluti Names of family members (if applicable): Printed Name: Dated: 1/13/04 Any patron who declined to sign the waiver was not permitted to use the Powerhouse Gym.

Stelluti's injury occurred at the gym the day that she joined. After signing the requisite paperwork to become a member, she went to participate in a spinning class. She advised the instructor of her inexperience and the instructor helped her to adjust the bike seat for height and showed her how to strap her feet to the pedals. The instructor then told Stelluti to watch and imitate her during the class.

As the class began, the participants started out pedaling in a seated position. Shortly afterward, the instructor told the participants to change from a seated to a standing position on their bikes. When Stelluti rose to a standing position, the handlebars dislodged from the bike.*fn4 As a result, Stelluti fell forward while her feet remained strapped to the pedals. With assistance, she succeeded in detaching herself from the bike. When she tried to resume participation after resting for fifteen minutes, she soon had to quit, finding herself in too much pain to continue.

Stelluti's injuries included pain in her neck and shoulders, soreness in her thighs and back, a cracked tooth, and bruises on her legs. After a hospital visit, she was diagnosed with back and neck strain, prescribed medication, and discharged with a recommendation for a follow-up appointment with a doctor. She claims also to experience persistent pain as a result of the incident. Her medical expert has stated that three years after her accident Stelluti suffers from chronic pain associated with myofascial pain syndrome.*fn5

Stelluti filed a timely complaint for damages in the Law Division against Powerhouse; Star Trac, the manufacturer of the spin bikes used at Powerhouse; and ABI Property Partnership, the premises owner. The complaint alleged the following negligence claims against Powerhouse and ABI: 1) "fail[ing] to properly maintain and set up the stationary bike"; 2) "fail[ing] to properly instruct the plaintiff as to how to use the bike [or] exercise proper care"; 3) "caus[ing] a dangerous and hazardous condition to exist"; 4) "allow[ing] a nuisance to exist"; 5) "fail[ing] to provide proper safeguards or warnings on the bike"; 6) "fail[ing] to provide proper and safe equipment"; 7) "maintain[ing] the bike in an unsafe, hazardous and/or defective manner"; and 8) acting in "a negligent, careless and reckless manner so as to cause an unsafe hazardous and/or defective condition to exist... [and failing] to provide proper safeguards and/or warnings." Plaintiff also asserted a products liability claim against Star Trac Fitness.*fn6

This appeal comes to us from a summary judgment record. That record reveals the following contrasting views about the spin bike that was involved in Stelluti's fall and resultant injuries.

Powerhouse submitted an expert liability report that described the mechanics of a Star Trac Fitness Johnny G. Spinner Pro bike. According to that expert's examination of an exemplar bike,*fn7 the handlebars have a chrome stem post and the entire, unitary piece -- handlebars and post -- may be detached and separated from the bike frame. The chrome post, which is approximately seven inches tall, contains seven elevation positioning holes, each approximately three-quarters of an inch apart. At the lower end of the post, a horizontal line and arrow, pointing down to the word "Maximum," indicates the furthest extension point of the post. However, Powerhouse's expert opined that an inexperienced user "would not notice th[at] mark." The chrome post fits into a vertical support member that extends from the bike's frame base. A locking pin -- a threaded rod fitted with a spring-loaded pin and handle ---secures the post to the frame. The pin is inserted into one of the elevation holes and is locked into place by tightening its handle. The expert noted that there is "no noticeable difference" between the appearance of the post when it is locked in place or when the post merely is resting on top of an elevation locking pin. Powerhouse's expert concluded that plaintiff's accident "occurred because the handlebars present on the stationary exercise bicycle that she was using unexpectedly and without warning separated from the bicycle causing her to fall."

Stelluti's liability expert, a college professor with an advanced degree in physical education and certifications in specialized fitness activities including spinning instruction, issued a report that opined that Powerhouse was "negligent in providing a safe environment" and, specifically that the spinning instructor "failed to provide effective specific supervision, instruction and assistance" to Stelluti. He also stated that Stelluti sustained her injuries as a result of the handlebar stem becoming dislodged from the locked position and explained how the handlebars may be raised or lowered, and locked into place, consistent with defendant's liability expert. Plaintiff's expert also agreed with those statements by defendant's representatives, the spinning instructor, and plaintiff, that the only way the handlebars could have become dislodged would be if the lock pin had not been engaged and, instead, the stem had been resting on the lock pin. He explained that, when in that position, the stem would recede only one inch into the vertical support member, thus creating an unstable position for the handlebars. Therefore, when plaintiff raised herself from a seated position, and leaned forward and downward on the handlebars, the handlebars and post would separate from the frame.

Stelluti's expert report also referenced a protocol*fn8 that, he said, every certified spinning instructor should follow, including "proper handlebar height adjustment" before each class to "help ensure a comfortable position on the bike and avoid undue strain on the back." The protocol noted that students should be reminded "to check that the 'pop pin' is fully engaged in to make sure that the handlebars are secure." The expert also referred to the Star Trac Group Cycles Owners Guide, which emphasized that "[p]roper instruction from a certified Spinning instructor should be used to properly fit the group cycle for use" and that "[u]sers should be aware of the features, functions and proper operation of the cycle before using the cycle for the first time." In conclusion, Stelluti's expert report stated that "[t]he proximal cause and mechanism of injury are a direct result of a lack of appropriate instructions in setting up the plaintiff's bike by the instructor."

As noted, defendant filed a motion for summary judgment. Before ruling, the trial court required additional briefing on whether common law premises liability imposed an affirmative duty that served to invalidate the use of an exculpatory agreement in this setting. Following submission of that additional briefing and argument, the court entered an order granting summary judgment in favor of Powerhouse, finding Powerhouse's waiver effective to exculpate it from plaintiff's negligence claims. The judge made several findings: 1) that the exculpatory agreement was enforceable because Powerhouse was not subject to a requirement to perform under a specific legal duty imposed by statute or by regulation; 2) that the waiver signed by Stelluti was not unconscionable and, further, that ...


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