The NJ Appellate Division ruled that despite signing a contract with a hold harmless clause when he joined a health club, a man is not barred from bringing suit to recover for injuries sustained when he slipped and fell on the stairs while headed to an indoor pool. James F. Walters v. YMCA, Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, decided August 18, 2014.

Plaintiff James F. Walters appealed 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 (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 argued 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.

The motion judge concluded that the Supreme Court’s holding in Stelluti was dispositive of the legal issues raised in this case. That 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.”

Thus the legal question presented on appeal by the Walters case was 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 (an issue not addressed or decided by the Court in Stelluti).

At the time the accident occurred, plaintiff had been a member of this YMCA for over three years. The membership agreement he signed contained the following “hold harmless” provision in all capital letters: I AGREE THAT THE YMWCA WILL NOT BE RESPONSIBLE FOR ANY PERSONAL INJURIES OR LOSSES SUSTAINED BY ME WHILE ON ANY YMWCA PREMISES OR AS A RESULT OF A YMWCA SPONSORED ACTIVITIES [SIC]. I FURTHER AGREE TO INDEMNIFY AND SAVE HARMLESS THE YMWCA FROM ANY CLAIMS OR DEMANDS ARISING OUT OF ANY SUCH INJURIES OR LOSSES.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Stelluti 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.

However, given the expansive scope of the exculpatory clause here, the Appellate Court held that if applied literally, it would eviscerate the common law duty of care owed by defendant to its invitees, regardless of the nature of the business activity involved. Such a prospect would be inimical to the public interest because it would transfer the redress of civil wrongs from the responsible tortfeasor to either the innocent injured party or to society at large, in the form of taxpayer-supported institutions. Thus, the Appellate Division disagreed with the motion judge and reversed on appeal.

Read the court’s decision

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