Employer Liability for Employee Injuries In the Company’s Gym

Health-and-wellness benefits are all the rage. Some employers offer their employees a discount on gym memberships. Some offer a monthly stipend to be used towards the fees at a health-club. And some have an on-site fitness center.

Employers who are considering building an on-site fitness center for employees commonly want to know how they can protect themselves against a personal-injury lawsuit. For example, an employee drops a dumbbell on his foot and breaks a toe. (Don’t laugh, people, broken toes are brutal!)

What’s to stop the employee from suing his employer for his injury? Assuming that lifting weights is not part of the employee’s job, it would not have been an injury incurred in the “course and scope” of his employment and, therefore, would not be covered by workers’ comp. And you, dear employer, own the equipment, including the dumbbell, so you’d surely be the first defendant to be named.

To avoid the “no-good-deed-goes-unpunished” phenomenon, employers will ask whether they can require employees to sign a waiver or release as a condition of using the fitness center. Until a few years ago, the answer was, “not really.” Of course, you could require that they sign a waiver but it would not be effective if you ever needed to use it because the law prohibited waivers of claims for future injury.

In 2008, in Slowe v. Pike Creek Court Club, the Delaware Superior Court held that such claims could be released but only if “the language makes it crystal clear and unequivocal that the parties specifically contemplated such a release.” In Slowe, the court held that the waiver at issue did not meet this “crystal-clear-and-unequivocal” standard and, consequently, the waiver was not effective, but left open the possibility that a “properly-worded release might effect a waiver of premises liability.”

In July, the court had the opportunity to address the issue again and, this time, found the waiver to be enforceable. In Hong v. Hockessin Athletic Club, the plaintiff, a member of the athletic club, signed a comprehensive waiver of liability and release in connection with her membership agreement. The waiver expressly stated that she and all others on her membership assumed the risk of “any injury or damage incurred while engaging in any physical exercise or activity or use of any club facility on the premises,” including the use of “any equipment in the facility.” The court held that this was sufficient to constitute a waiver in “crystal clear and unequivocal” terms and dismissed the suit.

There are no guarantees in life or in the law and this situation is no exception. Although this case offers employers some very good news when it comes to avoiding liability for on-site injury of employees and visitors, it is, of course, not a guarantee. Nevertheless, in light of this case, there seems to be no reason not to require a waiver for your on-site fitness center.

Hong v. Hockessin Athletic Club, No. N12C-05-004-PLA (Del. Super. July 18, 2012).

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