Recent Developments

Issues that affect ministers and churches
Man Suffers Heart Attack During Aerobics Class
Athletic club found not legally responsible.
Key point: A church will not necessarily be liable for the death of an adult participant in an aerobics class.

The New York Court of Appeals ruled that an athletic club was not legally responsible for a fatal heart attack suffered by a participant in an aerobics class. This case will be of interest to churches that conduct similar programs. An adult male suffered a heart attack during an aerobics class at a fitness center, and died within a few minutes. His widow sued the center, claiming that it was guilty of negligence. Specifically, she alleged that the center was negligent in the following ways: (1) in how it conducted the aerobics class; (2) in the manner in which emergency treatment was performed on the deceased before the rescue squad arrived; (3) in failing to adequately evaluate the deceased's medical profile form properly and to screen and test him properly to determine whether he was at risk for strenuous exercise; (4) in failing to have a supply of oxygen in the room where the decedent was participating in an aerobics class; and (5) in failing to have an instructor trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation conduct the aerobics class on the day of the decedent's fatal heart attack. The center defended insisted that it had not been negligent, and pointed to the following procedures that it had followed: (1) it relied on the medical training and experience of a registered nurse in the planning of the aerobics class; and (2) aerobics instructors were trained to call 911 immediately and to send someone to the first floor to direct the emergency personnel to the aerobics class. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit on the ground that the center had established that it was not negligent as a matter of law. The widow appealed, and the New York Court of Appeals (the highest level state court in New York) upheld the trial court's dismissal of the case. The court noted that the widow failed to introduce sufficient evidence that her husband's death was attributable to the center's negligence. It observed that "at best, [the widow] put forth the opinions of medical and health club experts which are conclusory" and insufficient to establish negligence. This case suggests that a church that conducts an aerobics class will not be legally responsible for fatal heart attacks suffered by participants in such a class, so long as it exercises reasonable care. The New York Court of Appeals defined reasonable care in this case as reliance by the fitness center on the medical training and experience of a registered nurse in the planning of the aerobics class and the training of aerobics instructors to call 911 immediately in the event of an emergency and to send someone to the first floor to direct emergency personnel to the aerobics class. The court did not agree with the widow that reasonable care also should have included screening the deceased to determine whether he was at risk for strenuous exercise, having a supply of oxygen in the aerobics room, and having an instructor trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation conduct the aerobics class. However, it is possible that courts in other states may conclude that "reasonable care" involves more than the New York court suggested, and for this reason churches in other states should not assume that the minimal precautions accepted by the New York court would be sufficient. Putrino v. Buffalo Athletic Club, 624 N.E.2d 676 (N.Y. 1993).

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Posted: March 1, 1994
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