How to save your club from the biggest risks in liability land.
Protecting your club from liability should be a top priority. As a result, we asked insurance companies what the three most common liability cases in clubs are, and how operators can protect their facilities — and their wallets — from them.
Top Liability: Faulty Equipment
According to Brian Rawlings, a program manager for Cincinnati Insurance Company, liability cases resulting from faulty equipment should be a key concern for club owners. “You see a fair amount of them and compared to some of the other claims, these can be more severe in terms of financial impact at the end of the day,” he said.
However, the good news is there are some things clubs can do in order to minimize these cases and their potential impact.
The first step is preventative maintenance of equipment. “In an ideal world you’re going to have a third-party vendor that comes out either quarterly, semi-annually or at least annually that does a preventative maintenance inspection of your equipment,” said Rawlings. “Or, a lot of the larger clubs have in-house maintenance staff year round. Both means obviously get the end result, in that maintenance is on a regular schedule to make sure the equipment is up to par, whether it’s the belts on a treadmill or the mechanisms on various cable machines that have wear and tear.”
In addition, preventative steps include requiring staff to walk the fitness floor — ideally hourly — to keep an eye out for issues. “If they see a member standing on a treadmill and pushing a button veraciously, that may indicate there’s something wrong with that piece of equipment,” explained Rawlings. “That’s obviously a sign that something may be wrong with that treadmill and you may need to shut that piece of equipment down.”
Once an issue has been identified, Rawlings explained clubs should attempt to do more than just place a printed-off “out of order” sign on the broken treadmill, for example. “Having permanent signage made of wood or plastic with a chain — something that makes that piece of equipment not even useable — is best,” he said. “Or ideally pulling that piece of equipment off the floor entirely.”
Finally, it’s important to document any and all preventative efforts (maintenance, walk-through times) in order to show that your club was taking necessary steps to prevent an accident. “Anything that you’ve shown from a preventative standpoint is what’s going to help you get the best possible solution for your health club at the end of the day if [a case] goes to court,” said Rawlings.
Top Liability: Member Malfunction
Although members may think they’re superheroes of fitness, the reality is they’re human, and humans make mistakes. As a result, sometimes they use a piece of equipment incorrectly, or quit paying attention to what they’re doing, resulting in injury.
Ken Reinig, the president of Reinig Insurance Solutions, refers to this type of liability case as “member malfunction.”
“One of the biggest problems is dehydration or people who workout without having eaten anything prior to strenuous exercise,” explained Reinig. “When a member passes out on a treadmill, collapses on a piece of equipment or simply just falls, serious injury can result. Even if the proximate cause was due to the member not preparing for their workout, the club is often involved in litigation.”
Reinig explained this is where instructing employees (specifically personal trainers) to educate members on the importance of staying hydrated and properly fueled is crucial. “Staff and trainers all know that hydration and nutrition are essential while working out,” he said. “The problem is, they assume their clients also know this. They should be asking every client prior to their workout, ‘Did you have a good breakfast this morning?’ or ‘Can I get you a water?’”
If an incident does occur, Reinig stressed the importance of documenting the scenario fully. “It is vitally important the acting club manager complete an incident report and also request witness reports from other members who may have seen the incident,” he said. “Also, be sure to follow-up with the member to check on their progress. Let them know you are concerned and want to get them back in the club as soon as possible.”
Ultimately, these steps could save you from having to pay for a large claim as a result of member malfunction. “Regardless if the injury was completely the fault of the member, the owner and staff need to show genuine concern for the client,” added Reinig. “Be sure to document every conversation you have with the injured member and file the incident with your insurance agent. Even if the member admits full responsibility, it is good to file an incident report — just in case.”
Top Liability: Slip (or Trip) and Fall
When you picture a member falling, you may picture them doing so in the locker room. However, according to Bill Coons, a senior loss control specialist for Markel Insurance, trip and fall incidents commonly occur on the fitness floor as well. “One of the areas where we have the biggest incidents of trip and falls is in free weight areas,” said Coons. “When you have members who don’t re-rack their weights, you’re asking for a problem.”
According to Coons, it’s not enough to just post signs asking for members to re-rack their weights. Enforcing this policy is key against being held negligent in the case of an accident. “If a club has gotten into the habit of not enforcing members to re-rack weights, then they’re asking for trouble,” he said. “So it’s better for a club to take the initiative early on in a new member’s contract and diligently police the free weight area.”
In addition, clubs should be on top of keeping an eye out for possible trip or slip hazards, such as loose cords. “What we find is if they have some sort of policy or guidelines for their employees to keep things kind of tidy, we see that it really reduces the number of slip and fall incidents,” said Coons.
Craig Shaddy, a program leader of Club Insurance by Thompson Insurance Enterprises, LLC, explained that surveillance cameras could be useful in protecting clubs against slip and fall liability as well.
“In some cases, cameras in clubs will help defend a case because you could have a person that is trying to conduct fraud,” he said. “Maybe it’s a minor slip and fall and they’re acting like it’s a major injury, or maybe they didn’t even really fall and just make the claim of it. Cameras can help defend against those types of fraudulent claims.”
Ultimately, boasting language in your waiver forms — and requiring members and visitors to sign — can help protect your club as well. “We provide samples of waivers, but we always suggest they go to an attorney and have them test it in their state,” said Shaddy. “We like them to really get that waiver tested.”
By Rachel Zabonick