JAMES F. WALTERS, Plaintiff-Appellant,
Argued January 29, 2014
Approved for Publication August 18, 2014.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County, Docket No. L-2830-12.
John J. Pisano argued the cause for appellant.
William T. Hilliard argued the cause for respondent (Sweet Pasquarelli, attorneys; Josephine M. DiCosmo, on the brief).
Before Judges FUENTES, FASCIALE and HAAS.
[437 N.J.Super. 113] FUENTES, P.J.A.D.
Plaintiff James F. Walters appeals from the order of the Law Division dismissing his personal injury cause of action against defendant YMCA. Applying the Supreme Court's holding in Stelluti v. Casapenn Enters., Inc., 203 N.J. 286, 1 A.3d 678 (2010), the trial court granted defendant's motion for summary judgment based on an exculpatory clause in the membership agreement signed by plaintiff as a condition of accessing defendant's facilities and using its physical exercise equipment.
Plaintiff argues the trial court erred in construing the exculpatory clause as a bar to his cause of action because his accident was caused by a negligently maintained stair tread. According to plaintiff, the basis of his cause of action is predicated on the ordinary common law duty of care owed by all business operators to its invitees, and thus it is completely unrelated to the inherent risky nature of the activities offered by health clubs.
Defendant argues the " hold harmless" provision in the membership agreement plaintiff voluntarily signed is a reasonable condition [437 N.J.Super. 114] commonly imposed on all those who wish to engage in sports and related physical activities. According to defendant, the accident and resulting injuries
are entirely foreseeable consequences given the nature of the activities and facilities offered, including a swimming pool. Defendant argues the trial court correctly concluded that the accident fell well within the scope of the exculpatory clause.
The motion judge concluded the Supreme Court's holding in Stelluti was dispositive of the legal issues raised in this case. The judge found plaintiff was contractually barred from seeking compensatory damages against defendant based on a claim of ordinary negligence. The judge rejected plaintiff's argument seeking to limit the scope of the Court's holding in Stelluti to apply only to claims based on engaging in the kind of risky activities offered by health clubs. Although plaintiff was not engaged in any physical exercise when he slipped and fell on the steps that led to the indoor pool, the judge found the pool area was " just another type of equipment that is being offered by the health club."
We disagree with the motion judge and reverse. A close reading of Justice LaVecchia's analysis in Stelluti reveals that the Court's holding was grounded on the recognition that health clubs, like defendant, are engaged in a business that offers its members the use of physical fitness equipment and a place to engage in strenuous physical activities that involve an inherent risk of injury. The Court upheld the defendant's limited exculpatory clause in Stelluti because the injury sustained was foreseeable as an inherent aspect of the nature of the business activity of health clubs.
As Justice LaVecchia clearly explained on behalf of a majority of the Court:
In sum, the standard we apply here places in fair and proper balance the respective public-policy interests in permitting parties to freely contract in this context (i.e. private fitness center memberships) and requires private gyms and fitness centers to adhere to a standard of conduct in respect of their business. Specifically, we hold such business owners to a standard of care congruent with the nature of their [437 N.J.Super. 115] business, which is to make available the specialized equipment and facility to their invitees who are there to exercise, train, and to push their physical limits. That is, we impose a duty not to engage in reckless or gross negligence . We glean such prohibition as a fair sharing of risk in this setting, which is also consistent with the analogous assumption-of-risk approach used by the Legislature to allocate risks in other recreational settings with limited retained-liability imposed on operators.
[ Stelluti, supra, 203 N.J. at 312-313, 1 A.3d 678 (emphasis added).]
Indeed, the legal question presented by this case, whether a fitness center or health club can insulate itself through an exculpatory clause from the ordinary common law duty of care owed by all businesses to its invitees, was specifically not addressed or decided by the Court in Stelluti . We again quote directly Justice LaVecchia's emphatic, cautionary language addressing this issue:
In the instant matter, like the Appellate Division, we feel no obligation to reach and discuss the validity of other aspects of the agreement not squarely presented by the facts of Stelluti's case. Thus, we need not address the validity of the agreement's disclaimer of liability for injuries that occur on the club's sidewalks or parking lot that are common to any commercial enterprise that has business invitees. With ...