Exculpatory Clause

Exculpatory Clause

Exculpatory Clause

In Urena v. LA Fitness and Fitness International, LLC d/b/a/ LA Fitness, Civil Action No. 20-964, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granted summary judgment in favor of LA Fitness and dismissed Ms. Urena’s claim for personal injuries.

Upon becoming a member of the Wyomissing, Pa., LA Fitness in 2016, Ms. Urena signed an Agreement, which contained Exculpatory Clause, in pertinent part:

IMPORTANT: RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND INDEMNITY. You hereby acknowledge and agree that use by Member… of LA Fitness' facilities, services, equipment or premises, involves risk of injury to persons and property, including those described below, and Member assumes full responsibility for such risks. In consideration of Member… being permitted to enter any facility of LA Fitness for any purpose including, but not limited to, observation, use of facilities, services or equipment, or participation in any way, Member agrees to the following: Member hereby releases and holds LA Fitness… harmless from all liability to Member… for any loss or damage, and forever gives up any claim or demands therefore, on account of injury to Member's person or property, including injury leading to the death of Member, whether caused by the active or passive negligence of LA Fitness or otherwise, to the fullest extent permitted by law, while Member [is]… using any LA Fitness facilities, services or equipment…

On Jan. 7, 2018, Ms. Urena had just completed her workout at the Wyomissing LA Fitness and entered the sauna and sat down on the second step for about 20 minutes. (She had regularly used the sauna and never experienced any issues.) Ms. Urena claims that she got up from the second step and as she stepped onto the "first step," the first step broke causing her to fall and sustain an injury to her knee, which required surgery. It appears the parties were unable to resolve their differences and Ms. Urena later filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania claiming LA Fitness was, inter alia, negligent in failing to maintain the sauna steps, and that its negligence caused her harm for which she should be compensated.

LA Fitness moved to have Ms. Urena's case dismissed due to Ms. Urena's signing of the Membership Agreement, which, in its opinion, contained a valid and enforceable Exculpatory Clause, barring her claims of negligence. The court, citing to Pennsylvania Supreme Court precedent, determined "an exculpatory clause is valid when three conditions are met. First, the clause must not contravene public policy. Secondly, the contract must be between persons relating entirely to their own private affairs and thirdly, each party must be a free bargaining agent to the agreement so that the contract is not one of adhesion." Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 2 A.3d 1174, 1189 (Pa. 2010). Further, "even once an exculpatory clause is determined to be valid, it will, nevertheless, still be unenforceable unless the language of the parties is clear that a person is being relieved of liability for his own acts of negligence." Id.

In its analysis of the facts, the court found the Exculpatory Clause did not violate public policy because it was not a matter of interest to the public or the state, citing Seaton v. E. Windsor Speedway, Inc., 582 A.2d 1380, 1382 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1990). On the contrary, the subject agreement was between private parties and not a matter of interest to the public or the state. Therefore, the first two prongs of the Chepkevich test were met. With respect to the final element, i.e., whether the waiver in question was a contract of adhesion, the court determined that agreements to participate in voluntary sporting or recreational activities were not contracts of adhesion because the signer is free to walk away without signing the release and participating in the activity; therefore, the agreement was not unconscionable. Chepkevich, 2 A.3d 1174, 1190-91

Interestingly, Ms. Urena argued that the contract was unenforceable because her primary language is Spanish. However, the court, citing to Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. v. Chun Chin Yung, 317 F.Supp.3d 879, 887 (E.D. Pa. 2018), held the signer alone is responsible for understanding and reading the contract prior to signing it. The potential language barrier does not raise a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether an agreement is valid and enforceable.