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Fitness Follies


A 46-year-old gentleman, overweight and not having exercised at all, meets a personal-fitness trainer in a store. He decides he would like to look as buffed as the trainer, and he tells him so. They strike a deal for training. They schedule the first session at Gold's Gym.

The session starts at a moderate pace. The client spends 12 minutes on a level treadmill at a walking speed; then come some dumbbell presses; then some push-ups. The client asks for a break, but the trainer does not allow it. On he goes into more dumbbell presses on a bench, and he again protests that he cannot do any more. The trainer pushes him on using both ridicule and masculine encouragement. Forty or fifty minutes pass. While doing some leg lifts, the client begins to experience chest pain, but he does not tell the trainer saying instead that he is out of breath and needs water. After dousing himself over the head with water, the client promptly lies down on the floor and suffers a heart attack. The scene then moves from Gold's Gym to the courthouse.

The customer sues the personal trainer for negligence. He claims that the trainer as well as the Gym should have first investigated his health condition and the risk of a heart attack. The defense counters that the risk of a heart attack is inherent in strenuous physical training; and under California's doctrine of primary assumption of risk defendants bear no responsibility. The court agrees with the defense.

Since 1992 California law has barred recovery for injuries suffered during participation in sports. The court's reason, in essence, is that, if you play the game, you accept the risk that another player may injure you inadvertently. Of course, you do not take the risk of an intentional or highly reckless act, but only one that would normally occur in the course of the game. This rule has been extended to situations where the injury occurs during a lesson on how to play the sport. The logic of protecting a coach or instructor, however, seems less compelling to me, because one would hope that the coach possesses more wisdom and more presence of mind than a player in the heat of battle.

In this new case [Rostal v. Neste Enterprises (April 5, 2006)] the court went even farther. Not only did the instructor bear no liability, but he had a perfect right to push his client to perform even beyond what the client could reasonably do given his level of fitness. To quote the court, the fitness trainer may "challenge plaintiff to perform beyond his level of physical ability of fitness. That challenge, however, is the very purpose of fitness training, and is precisely the reason one would pay for the services of a personal trainer." As a result, the court reasoned, the client accepted "the risk that the trainer will not accurately assess the participant's ability and the participant will be injured as a result." The court found no evidence that the trainer had consciously intended to push his client to the point of cardiac arrest.

Though everything the court says about fitness training is true, at least in my personal experience, I wonder whether the decision makes any practical sense. Charging into the first workout session in total ignorance of one's state of health is a reckless act. Whether that recklessness is attributable to the trainer or to the client is a question one can debate, but reckless it remains. If the client has not spent time with his physician in advance, surely the trainer should tell him to do that before he walks through the door to the gym. The training will prove more effective if begun moderately and, most importantly, if the client survives until the next session.

By the way, Gold's Gym escaped liability for the same reason. Gold's did not employ the instructor and, even if Gold's had, its duty to the client could not have been any greater than the instructor's.

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