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Bartlett v. Push to Walk

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

April 9, 2018




         Plaintiff 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.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         A. Factual History

         Caleb 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, 5-6).

         Push to 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).

         Tiffany 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).

         Ms. 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 ¶ 13).

         In 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).

         Sometime 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."[2] (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).

         Mr. 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).

         On May 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 ¶ 28).

         Mr. 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.

         (PCSF ¶ 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).

         According 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 ¶¶ 35-37).

         Mr. 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).

         Mr. 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).

         Mr. 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. ¶¶ 94:4-25).

         After 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).

         B. Pertinent Procedural History

         Mr. 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).

         On 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 decision.

         II. ...

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