A Cost of Health Club Injuries

Prompt reporting of injuries can reduce legal fees

Kim Marshall was injured while working out on a treadmill at Bally’s in Tacoma, Washington. As a result of her injuries, Marshall filed suit against Bally’s Pacwest, Life Fitness, the company that manufactured and owned the treadmill, and Washington Athletic Repair, the company that installed and maintained the treadmill. There were some discrepancies as to what actually caused Marshall to be ejected from the treadmill, and it was this discrepancy that led to the dismissal of her suit.

The following facts where established in Marshall’s original deposition: She set the treadmill at 2.5 miles per hour for fifteen minutes. The treadmill abruptly stopped at thirteen minutes. Ms. Marshall reset the machine, but it restarted at 6.2 miles per hour instead of the slower pace she had initially programmed. This sudden start threw her backward, causing her to strike her head against a plexiglass wall. The blow to the head resulted in a brain injury.

However, when questioned at trial, Ms. Marshall said she could not remember anything after resetting the machine. She could not recall the speed the machine restarted at or even if she was thrown backward into the plexiglass wall or to the side against something else. Her attorney stated that she had a two-week memory lapse following the brain injury.

The trial court concluded that once she testified in court that she could not remember what actually happened after she reset the treadmill, she could not point back to her deposition and assert that previous testimony as fact. And because she could not tell the court what the machine did when she reset it, she had no proof that the machine malfunctioned at all. The court reasoned it was just as likely that she tripped, fainted, or fell after resetting the machine because there is no other evidence to establish what happened.

Marshall attempted to win on another legal theory called spoliation, which is the intentional destruction of evidence. This theory is based on the assumption that, when one party intentionally destroys evidence relevant to a case, that evidence must have been unfavorable to them. In this case, Marshall’s injuries occurred in May 1993, and her attorney did not ask to examine the treadmill until September 1997. After Marshall’s injury, the treadmill remained in use at Bally’s. In November 1993, Washington Athletic replaced the CPU in all Life Stride 9500 treadmills, including the one at issue. Marshall’s attorney had not requested that the CPU be preserved. That same treadmill remained operational until April 1997, when its frame broke. At this time, the machine was returned to Life Express for replacement. The court concluded that, because Marshall’s attorney did not request to inspect the machine until four years after the incident, Bally’s could not be held accountable for having destroyed evidence.

Finally, the court also took into account the waiver clause in Ms. Marshall’s Membership contract with Bally’s. The clause stated, in part, that

“the club member is “voluntarily participating in these activities and assume(s) all risks of injury… that might result” and that the member agrees “to waive any claims or rights (the member) might otherwise have to sue (Bally’s) a factor, the court took into consideration when dismissing Marshall’s claim the fact that she could not prove that her injury resulted from any malfunctioning of the treadmill she was using. “–   Marshall V. Ball’s Pac West, Inc., 972 P.2d 475, (Wash.1999).

In My Opinion

Proper accident and injury reporting can go a long way in documenting proper practice and enhance the ability to succeed in litigation.  In the above case, if witnesses observed that the plaintiff tripped and wasn’t thrust from the treadmill as she stated, the claim could have immediately been dismissed, thus avoiding expensive legal defense fees.  Prompt accident investigation procedures including written witness statements are important.

Article Compliments of From the Gym to the Jury, Volume 1, Number 1.