• Key point: Churches that conduct exercise classes on their premises may be legally responsible for some injuries that occur.
• In a case that will be of interest to any church that conducts exercise classes on its premises, a Minnesota court ruled that a health club could be sued as a result of an injury that occurred in the course of an exercise class. In late 1989 a woman joined a private health club. As part of her membership contract, she signed the following waiver agreement releasing the club from liability for any injury:
The undersigned [does hereby] … release, waive, discharge and covenant not to sue [the club], its affiliated clubs, their respective administrators, directors, agents, coaches, and other employees of the organization, other participants, sponsoring agencies, sponsors, advertisers, and if applicable, owners and leasers of premises used to conduct the event, all of which are hereinafter referred to as “releasees”, from demands, losses or damages on account of injury, including death or damage to property, caused or alleged to be caused in whole or in part by the negligence of the releasee or otherwise.
Memberships at the club extend from January through the end of December, and her membership expired on December 31, 1989. During 1990, she did not renew her membership. In early 1991, she rejoined the club, but was not asked to sign a waiver at that time. The club’s policy was to have members sign a new waiver when they reapplied for membership after a gap in years. In March 1991, a volunteer trainer of the club asked the woman to assist him in demonstrating a stretching exercise. He had her stand next to him and lift her leg as far as she could. He then cupped his hand under her leg and lifted it further. She testified she told him he had lifted her leg far enough, but that he lifted further. The trainer testified he did not remember what actually occurred or her saying anything. The woman felt pain after the stretching demonstration, and left the club early to go home. Her leg got progressively worse over the following weeks, and she sought medical attention. After several visits to the doctor and several physical therapy sessions, she was diagnosed with having reflexive sympathetic dystrophy syndrome (RSDS), a disabling neurological disorder. She underwent treatment for several years in an attempt to stop her leg’s deterioration. The results of the treatment were mixed, and her prognosis is unfavorable. The woman sued the club, seeking damages for past and future medical expenses, pain and suffering, loss of earnings, and loss of consortium. Because she was not able to work for the family business as she had before, she also sought lost profits. The club argued that the waiver agreement the woman signed continued until the date of her injury, even though the agreement in which it was contained expired prior to the injury. A trial court ruled submitted to the jury the question of whether the waiver agreement was “implicitly incorporated” into the 1991 membership agreement, and accordingly was still in effect at the time of the woman’s injury. The woman appealed this decision.
A state appeals court ruled that the waiver agreement expired and was not effective as of the date of the woman’s injury. The court observed:
Minnesota recognizes the validity of, but does not favor, exculpatory clauses. The rule of strict construction is applied against the drafter of exculpatory clauses and courts will not enforce clauses that are ambiguous in scope or that attempt to release a party from liability “for intentional, willful or wanton acts” …. In the waiver [the woman] agreed to release [the club] from liability for injuries “caused or alleged to be caused in whole or in part by the negligence of the releasee or otherwise.” The language “or otherwise” is ambiguous in scope as to whether it releases [the club] for injuries caused intentionally, and therefore we will not enforce it.
In addition, the waiver unambiguously expired at the end of [the woman’s] first membership contract and was not incorporated in the second membership contract …. The starting date for [the woman’s] membership was in November 1989. The ending date was December 31, 1989. The waiver was on a separate paper signed contemporaneously. The waiver contract itself did not contain either a starting or an ending date. But this waiver contract was an integral part of the membership contract and thus would be of the same duration unless specific language designated otherwise. [The woman] had no ability to waive any rights or acquiesce to any terms with [the club] until the parties had a contract. Precedent and common sense tells us the waiver expired at the termination of the underlying contract, as no other date was stated. If the club intended the waiver to be perpetual and to extend to any and all renewals, including non-consecutive renewals as here, it could easily have so stated. It did not. The facts are undisputed that the new membership was not accompanied by a new waiver. There was no reference to the former waiver, and [the club’s] policy was to have its members sign a new waiver when they reapplied for membership after a gap in membership, meaning, non-consecutive years …. We find as a matter of law that the waiver in the first membership contract expired on December 31, 1989, and was not incorporated in the second membership contract in 1991. Therefore [the woman] was not subject to any waiver at the time of her injury.
This case is relevant to church leaders for two reasons. First, it demonstrates the risks associated with exercise classes. Second, it demonstrates the reluctance of the courts to honor waiver or release agreements that attempt to release an organization from liability for its negligence. In this case the court refused to honor the release agreement for two reasons: (1) The agreement was worded so broadly that it could be interpreted to release the club from liability for its “intentional, willful or wanton acts.” Since under Minnesota law release agreements cannot waive liability for such acts, the broadly-worded release agreement the woman signed was void as a matter of public policy. (2) The agreement had expired. What is the lesson here for churches? Release agreements should not be viewed as a solution to legal risks. The courts will avoid such agreements whenever possible, often in unexpected ways. They should not be relied upon, and certainly should not be viewed as a substitute for sound risk management. Churches should never use release or waiver agreements that are not prepared or reviewed by legal counsel. Nimis v. St. Paul Turners, 521 N.W.2d 54 (Minn. App. 1994).
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