It is a trainer’s worst nightmare. You are challenging your client with a new exercise to knock them off their plateau, or you are working with a new client and do not know their limitations, and they become injured. Worse still, the injury is serious enough to be disabling, and the client decides to file a lawsuit.
It has happened more than once:
- Rostai v. Neste Enterprises: During his first personal training session, a 46 year-old overweight plaintiff suffered a heart attack toward the end of his session.
- Makris v. Scandinavian Health Spa, Inc.: The plaintiff told her trainer that she felt a sharp pain in her neck that radiated down her arm while using the leg press, during her first PT session. Her trainer said her upper body was just weak, and it would get better. An MRI revealed the plaintiff had three herniated cervical discs.
- Corrigan v. Musclemakers, Inc.: At the end of a first training session, the trainer put the plaintiff on a treadmill at 3.5 mph with no instructions on its use, and then left her unsupervised. She flew backward on the treadmill and fractured her ankle.
- Baldi-Perry v Kiafas and 360 Fitness Center, Inc.: The plaintiff sought personal training upon her doctor’s recommendation after recent back surgery. The trainer was aware of the surgery, but failed to do a complete health screening. The plaintiff suffered severe and permanent injury to her back during her final training session.
These are just a few of dozens of lawsuits that are filed against personal trainers and fitness enterprises, usually citing negligence on the part of the trainer.
Negligence in a Nutshell
In any negligence case, the following four elements must be satisfied:
- Did the trainer have a legal duty to prevent the plaintiff’s injury?
- Did a breach of duty occur?
- Was the breach of duty the causation of the incident?
- Were damages to the plaintiff the outcome of the incident?
As fitness professionals, injury prevention and the wellbeing of our clients is our foremost duty. When we fail through carelessness, ignorance or poor judgement to protect our clients from injury, we have breached our duty. If our actions cause our clients to become injured, we are liable for those injuries due to negligence.
Steps to Avoid Injury Due to Negligence
As a trainer, there are many measures you can take to protect yourself from negligence lawsuits:
- Always conduct a thorough health screening and obtain a physician’s clearance when appropriate.
- Conduct a complete battery of assessments to understand your clients’ limitations.
- Take care with new clients: Provide thorough instructions, be a stickler for proper mechanics, begin with light weight loads and listen to your client if they complain of pain, shortness of breath or any extraordinary discomfort.
- Personal training clients pay for supervision and guidance. They deserve your undivided attention. Leave your phone in your locker, at the front desk or in your car. It only takes a second’s distraction for your client to get hurt.
- Always spot your client and look for mechanical deficiencies.
- Follow first aid and emergency procedures the minute an incident occurs.
If you do get tagged in a lawsuit, you will be scrutinized to see if you conduct yourself as a professional. There are several things you can do to document your professionalism:
- Keep your certification current and available.
- Keep meticulous records of each session, and record unusual incidents.
- Maintain neat and organized client files with documentation of health screening, assessment results, informed consent/waiver of liability, physician’s clearance, behavioral contract, food and activity logs, contract for services, progress logs, and any other documentation pertaining to your professional relationship with your client.
- File an incident report if your client gets hurt, and acquire names and contact information of witnesses.
- Maintain liability insurance through a reputable provider.
A negligence lawsuit can ruin your career and cost you a lot of money. Be careful, prudent and professional when dealing with your clients. They trust you with their health and safety, and it is your duty to protect them from harm.
Whether you are employed by a gym or studio, or you work as an independent contractor, it is important to understand your legal rights and obligations as a fitness professional. W.I.T.S. has a number of online courses that detail the legal issues surrounding our industry. Certified Personal Trainer, Fitness Management and Older Adult Fitness Specialist are all certification programs that provide insight into the legal side of things. Continuing education courses that may be useful include Club Management: Human Resources and Staffing. Do not wait until you are faced with a legal situation to learn about your rights, responsibilities and liability under the law.