United States District Court, D. New Jersey
MCNULTYJK, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
Caleb Bartlett, who is quadriplegic and uses a wheelchair for
mobility, attended defendant Push to Walk fitness center for
personal training. This action arises from an accident that
occurred in May 2014. While trying a new training position
with a Push to Walk employee, Mr. Bartlett experienced
various symptoms, fell, and later discovered a leg fracture.
Mr. Bartlett sues Push to Walk and the employee, claiming
negligence, negligent hiring, and gross negligence. Now
before the court is the defendants' motion for summary
judgment. Defendants argue they are entitled to summary
judgment on the two negligence claims, citing an exculpatory
waiver that Mr. Bartlett signed and the charitable immunity
doctrine. As to the claim of gross negligence, the defendants
argue that the evidence is insufficient.
Bartlett, a thirty-six-year-old man who is quadriplegic, had
been in a wheelchair for eighteen years and wished to improve
his health. (PCSF ¶¶ 2, 5; RPCSF ¶¶ 2,
5). He suffered from low bone density, muscle atrophy, and
digestive problems; he also wanted to lose weight. (PCSF
¶ 5; RPCSF ¶ 5). He sought personal training
services from defendant Push to Walk to improve his
condition. (PCSF ¶¶ 1, 5-6; RPCSF ¶¶ 1,
Walk "is a specialized gym for people with spinal cord
injuries and neurological disorders." (PCSF ¶ 6;
RPCSF ¶ 6). Push to Walk provides one-on-one workouts
for $95 and other sessions for $50. (PCSF ¶ 40; RPCSF
¶ 40). Every client is billed monthly, must provide a
valid credit card, and must pay $95 for any session cancelled
with less than twenty-four hours' notice. (PCSF ¶
40; RPCSF ¶ 40). Defendants allege that Mr. Bartlett,
like many clients, raised funds from others, and did not pay
out of pocket for his Push to Walk training sessions. (PCSF
¶ 40; RPCSF ¶ 40).
Warren, an employee of Push to Walk, worked with Mr.
Bartlett. (PCSF ¶¶ 15, 18; RPCSF ¶¶ 15,
18). As of May 2014, she held a Bachelor of Science degree in
exercise science, had four years of experience at Push to
Walk, was certified in CPR and AED, and was a certified
personal trainer by the American School of Sports Medicine.
(PCSF ¶¶ 7-8, 14; RPCSF ¶¶ 7-8, 14). She
was not, however, a physical therapist. (PCSF ¶ 14;
RPCSF ¶ 14).
Warren was hired by Push to Walk as an "aide, " a
position which involves assisting "neuroexercise
trainers." (PCSF ¶ 9; RPCSF ¶ 9). She received
on-the-job training from Push to Walk as an aide but was not
provided with any written materials or videos to watch. (PCSF
¶ 10; RPCSF ¶ 10). After completing sixty
on-the-job observation hours and seventy-five on-the-job
"hands-on" hours, Ms. Warren began working as a
"neuroexercise trainer." (PCSF ¶ 11; RPCSF
¶ 11). Other than those practical training hours at Push
to Walk, Mr. Bartlett alleges, Ms. Warren did not receive any
training to become a "neuroexercise trainer." (PCSF
¶ 13). Ms. Warren alleges, however, that she attended a
seminar from Restorative Therapies in Baltimore, Maryland
regarding advanced functional electrical stimulators. (RPCSF
April 2013, Ms. Warren began working with Mr. Bartlett. (PCSF
¶ 15; RPCSF ¶ 15). Bartlett claims that Warren did
not perform Mr. Bartlett's initial assessment and did not
know his height and weight at the time she began working with
him. (PCSF ¶ 15). Warren responds that her failure to
recall Bartlett's height and weight occurred only later,
when she was deposed. (RPCSF ¶ 15). Ms. Warren's
personal training services were supposed to "help
improve [Mr. Bartlett's] bone density and to help get his
body back in shape." (PCSF ¶ 17; RPCSF ¶ 17).
Their sessions generally lasted an hour. (PCSF ¶ 18;
RPCSF ¶ 18).
before the date of the accident, Mr. Bartlett requested to
change trainers because he was "not comfortable"
with what Ms. Warren "understood of spinal cord
injury" and was "very surprised that she didn't
understand about, specifically, ... autonomic [dysreflexia]
and other conditions that can raise with spinal cord
injury." (PCSF ¶ 19). For Bartlett,
Warren's alleged lack of understanding of autonomic
dysreflexia "began to raise a red flag as to how much
the staff really knew at Push to Walk about the intricacies
of spinal cord injur[ies] and its secondary conditions
...." (PCSF ¶ 23; RPCSF ¶ 23).
Bartlett recalls sending an email to Push to Walk employee
Tommy Sutor about changing trainers approximately six months
before the incident. The email, however, has not been
produced. (PCSF ¶ 20; RPCSF ¶ 20). Bartlett also
recalled having a telephone conversation with Sutor in which
he explained that he was unhappy with Ms. Warren. (PCSF
¶ 21). He disapproved of her "behavior in certain
situations" and explained, "I felt that she did not
respect my years of experience with a chair and awareness of
what my physical limitations were... I just felt it was
disrespectful. It was a little bit condescending." (PCSF
¶ 21; RPCSF ¶ 21). Bartlett also felt that it would
be "a better situation" if he worked with a male
trainer. (PCSF ¶ 22; RPCSF ¶ 22). A few weeks
before the accident, Sutor attempted to work out a schedule
so that Bartlett could work with a different Push to Walk
trainer. (PCSF ¶ 22; RPCSF ¶ 22).
22, 2014, Mr. Bartlett was training with Ms. Warren at Push
to Walk. (PCSF ¶ 24; RPCSF ¶ 24). Warren explained
that she wanted to try a "kneeling" technique with
Bartlett to improve his balance by isolating his core. (PCSF
¶ 24; RPCSF ¶ 24). She had been taught the
"kneeling" technique by another trainer at Push to
Walk; she was not sure of the trainer's name. (PCSF
¶ 25; RPCSF ¶ 25). She did not learn the technique
anywhere else and had not read any material regarding this
technique with respect to individuals with spinal cord
injuries. (PCSF ¶ 26; RPCSF ¶ 26). Warren stated
that "kneeling" had helped other clients improve
their balance, but acknowledged that there was no
"objective test for gauging improvement in
balance." (PCSF ¶ 27; RPCSF ¶ 27). She was not
concerned about "any risk at all" before putting
Bartlett in the kneeling position because "[i]t was a
gradual progression that he had gotten to after - over a year
of working out at Push to Walk." (PCSF ¶ 28; RPCSF
Bartlett expressed that he was "nervous" about
trying the kneeling position "because he had never been
put in that position before, " but "said he was
willing to do it, to try it." (PCSF ¶ 29; RPCSF
¶ 29). He had not been in that position since he had
been injured; he told Ms. Warren that he had not knelt in
over twenty years. (PCSF ¶¶ 30, 32; RPCSF ¶
30, 32). Bartlett testified that he "made it very clear
that [he] was not comfortable with the exercise." (PCSF
¶ 31; RPCSF ¶ 31). Warren allegedly said that he
could stop if he felt uncomfortable. (PCSF ¶ 31).
Bartlett admitted that "some part of him wanted to be
kneeling for the first time in twenty years because he did
not "want to be a chicken" and was "willing to
try." (PCSF ¶ 32; RPCSF ¶ 32). According to
Bartlett, the Push to Walk employees:
rotated me over onto my stomach, which was already
uncomfortable because I had not laid on my stomach in ten
years, and when you do that with a spinal cord injury, ...
it's very painful and very uncomfortable. You're then
pulled into a kneeling position backwards .... They grab you
from behind by the hips and literally pull you back upward up
in a kneeling position, and immediately when I was on my
knees, it was much worse than when I was in the standing
frame. I was lightheaded. There was some stronger dysreflexic
symptoms. I knew that this was not a good situation. I could
tell that they did not have control of my body, just because
of my size, and I needed to lay down. I did not feel well and
I asked them to put me down, and they did, and when I laid
down, I was tingling, I was lightheaded and I was nauseous.
¶ 34). Warren then told him "I just want to try it
one more time." (PCSF ¶ 34). Mr. Bartlett replied,
"I don't think it's a good idea." (PCSF
¶ 34). He relented, however. Bartlett said, "All
right. 111 do it one more time, but I don't think
it's a good idea." (PCSF ¶ 34).
to Mr. Bartlett, when the employees proceeded to get him in
position, his hips buckled to the left, he fell forward to
his right, and his hips went to the left. (PCSF ¶ 34).
The employees righted him, but he felt that he was going to
vomit, and they placed him down on the mat. (PCSF ¶ 34).
Bartlett believed he had cracked a rib because he felt a pain
shooting up his right side. (PCSF ¶ 34). He believes he
was in the kneeling position for "no more than a
minute" on the first attempt, and for less time than
that on the second attempt. (PCSF ¶¶ 35-37; RPCSF
Bartlett had never ended a training session early. (PCSF
¶ 34). He usually ended his training session on a
positive note and would ride the electrical stimulation
bicycle for a half hour. (PCSF ¶ 34). This time,
however, Bartlett felt lightheaded and experienced early
symptoms of dysreflexia. (PCSF ¶ 34). He was in pain and
had a hard time breathing, particularly on his right side.
(PCSF ¶ 34).
Bartlett's kneeling session with Ms. Warren was on
Thursday, May 22, 2014. (Bartlett Dep. ¶¶
90:17-21). The next day, Friday, Bartlett "sat very
still all day" and his symptoms remained similar.
(Bartlett Dep. ¶¶ 90:25-93:5). He experienced a
growing pain on his right side and his breathing was labored;
he thought he had cracked a rib. (Bartlett Dep. ¶¶
91:2-8). He had mild sweats, was very tired, and lacked
appetite. (Bartlett Dep. ¶¶ 91:8-15). By nighttime
he was having bad spasms. (Bartlett Dep. ¶¶
91:20-23). At 4:00 am on Saturday morning, Mr. Bartlett was
experiencing spasms and shaking that were "similar to a
panic attack"; he could barely breathe. (Bartlett Dep.
¶¶ 92:7-18). He thought he had a collapsed lung.
(Bartlett Dep. ¶¶ 92:1-93:5).
Bartlett went to the hospital. (Bartlett Dep. ¶¶
93:6-10). Although he did not have a cracked rib or blockages
of any kind, his oxygen levels were very low. (Bartlett Dep.
¶¶ 93:11-23). The hospital performed X-rays and CAT
scans of his upper body. (Bartlett Dep. ¶¶
93:16-23). He continued to sweat and feel pain, and he was
kept in the hospital for monitoring. (Bartlett Dep.
being discharged from the hospital, Mr. Bartlett noticed that
his right knee and leg had started to swell. (Bartlett Dep.
¶¶ 94:21-95:6). He called his doctor sometime after
the first week of June 2014; the doctor told him to go to
Stony Brook University Emergency Room. (Bartlett Dep.
¶¶ 95:1-6, 97:19-21). The doctors at Stony Brook
performed a series of MRIs and X-rays and determined that Mr.
Bartlett had fractured his leg. (Bartlett Dep. ¶¶
98:2-17). They determined that the leg had been fractured for
at least three weeks. It had started to mend in a fractured
position, such that it would require dangerous surgery to
repair. (Id.). The doctors decided not to perform
surgery, however, because of the spinal cord injury.
(Bartlett Dep. ¶¶ 98:-25). They put Mr. Bartlett in
a brace and sent him home. (Bartlett Dep. ¶¶
98:25-99:1). Bartlett states that this injury has prevented
him from pursuing electronic stimulation and other types of
physical therapy that have helped people with spinal cord
injuries. (Bartlett Dep. ¶¶ 106:1-107:16). Since he
has stopped exercising, his bone density has gotten lower and
he has experienced increased pain in his hips and legs.
(Bartlett Dep. ¶¶ 108:7-12).
Pertinent Procedural History
Bartlett filed a complaint with this court on September 29,
2015, based on diversity jurisdiction. (ECF No. 1). The first
complaint alleged two counts: negligence in providing
services and the negligent hiring of defendant Tiffany
Warren. (ECF No. 1). Defendants filed a motion for summary
judgment on April 22, 2016. (ECF No. 11). Mr. Bartlett
opposed this motion and also requested to file an amended
complaint. (ECF Nos. 12, 13). I granted Mr. Bartlett's
request to file an amended complaint and thus terminated the
defendants' motion for summary judgment. (ECF No. 15).
September 30, 2016, Mr. Bartlett filed an amended complaint
that added a cause of action for gross negligence. (ECF No.
16). Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment on
October 27, 2017. (ECF No. 26). Mr. Bartlett has filed papers
in opposition (ECF No. 28), and the defendants have filed a
reply (ECF no. 32)). The motion is fully briefed and ripe for