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Pennsylvania Court Holds Exculpatory Clause on Reverse of Membership Agreement Unenforceable

Recently, the Pennsylvania Superior Court addressed the validity of an exculpatory clause within a gym membership agreement.  Exculpatory clauses and waivers of liability are enforceable, provided they are conspicuous.  In certain circumstances, the waiver provision can be enforced even when it is unread, if a reasonable person should have noticed the clause.

In this case, Melinda Hinkal asserted a negligence claim against Gavin Pardoe, a personal trainer working at Gold’s Gym. Ms. Hinkal also brought respondeat superior claims against Gold’s Gym and TRT Holdings (Defendants).

While exercising at the gym under Mr. Pardoe’s direction, Ms. Hinkal alleged that she suffered an injury that ruptured a disc in her neck, requiring two separate surgeries. She claimed that Mr. Pardoe negligently put too much weight on the workout equipment and then instructed her to continue her workout without noticing her injury.  Defendants filed a summary judgment motion on the grounds that Ms. Hinkal signed a guest agreement containing legal waivers of liability, barring Ms. Hinkal’s claims against them. The trial court granted the motion for summary judgment, and Ms. Hinkal appealed.

On appeal, Ms. Hinkal asserted that the waiver provision, on the reverse of the membership agreement, was not valid and enforceable.  She claimed that it was inconspicuous and not sufficient to give notice of its contents and significance.

The court examined the agreement itself and the waiver of liability/assumption of risk statement. Notably, the court stated the agreement does not provide a space for initials to indicate acknowledgement and acceptance of the additional terms.   In certain circumstances, to determine if a reasonable person should have noticed an exculpatory clause, the court considers factors such as the clause’s placement in the document, the size of the clause’s print, and whether it was highlighted in all capital letters, or a differing font or color.

In this case, the court applied the relevant factors and determined that the exculpatory clause in the Gold’s Gym membership agreement was not enforceable, since it was not sufficiently conspicuous.  First, it was printed on the reverse of the one-page document.  Second, the signature line was on the other side of the document.  Third, the font was the same size as the other terms and was difficult to read.

In this case, the appellate court stated that the defendants took no steps to alert Ms. Hinkal that by signing the membership agreement, she was waiving her right to initiate a personal injury action against Gold’s Gym.  In conclusion, the court stated they did not find that Ms. Hinkal’s intent was to waive her right to bring a lawsuit against the gym.

The appellate court reversed the trial court’s granting of the summary judgment motion. They remanded for further proceedings.

At Needle Law, we help clients by providing skilled representation in personal injury lawsuits, including those involving gyms and health clubs.  For a free, confidential consultation, call 570-344-1266 to discuss your case with a Pennsylvania personal injury attorney.

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