Ketler v. PFPA, LLC

Decision Date15 January 2016
Docket NumberNo. 319, 2015,319, 2015
Citation132 A.3d 746
Parties DeShaun Ketler and Brittany Ketler, his wife, Plaintiff–Below, Appellant, v. PFPA, LLC, a Delaware Corporation, d/b/a Planet Fitness, Defendant–Below, Appellee.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Delaware

Edward T. Ciconte, Esquire, Adam F. Wasserman, Esquire, Ciconte, Scerba & Kerrick, LLC, Wilmington, Delaware, for Appellant.

Gary H. Kaplan, Esquire, Jessica L. Tyler, Esquire, Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin, Wilmington, Delaware, for Appellee.

Before STRINE, Chief Justice; VALI HURA, and VAUGHN, Justices.

VAUGHN

, Justice:

Plaintiffs–Below/Appellants DeShaun Ketler and Brittany Ketler appeal from a Superior Court order granting Defendant–Below/Appellee PFPA, LLC's ("Planet Fitness") motion for judgment on the pleadings. DeShaun Ketler was injured while using exercise equipment in a Planet Fitness facility. The Ketlers claim that the injuries were caused by negligence on the part of Planet Fitness. The Superior Court found that the Ketlers claim was barred by a signed release of liability. It determined that a release which allows a party to avoid liability for its own negligence is permissible under Delaware Law if the release is unambiguous, not unconscionable, and not against public policy. It further determined that the release satisfied all three criteria. On appeal, the Ketlers contend that the Superior Court erred because the release is ambiguous, unconscionable, and against public policy. We approve the Superior Court's determinations and affirm.

In 2010, DeShaun joined Planet Fitness at a cost of $10 per month.1 DeShaun signed a membership agreement, which contained the following:

I understand and expressly agree that my use of this Planet Fitness facility ... involves the risk of injury to me or my guest whether caused by me or not. I understand that these risks can range from minor injuries to major injuries including death. In consideration of my participation in the activities and use of the facilities offered by Planet Fitness, I understand and voluntarily accept this risk and agree that Planet Fitness ... will not be liable for any injury, including, without limitation, personal, bodily, or mental injury ... resulting from the negligence of Planet Fitness or anyone on Planet Fitness' behalf whether related to exercise or not. Accordingly, I do hereby forever release and discharge Planet Fitness from any and all claims, demands, injuries, damages, actions or causes of action. I further understand and acknowledge that Planet Fitness does not manufacture fitness or other equipment in its facilities, but purchases and/or leases equipment, and therefore Planet Fitness may not be held liable for defective products.2

In April 2013, DeShaun was injured when a cable broke on a seated rowing machine that he was using at Planet Fitness.

This Court has previously recognized that a release of prospective negligence may be valid.3 Such a release must be " ‘clear and unequivocal’ to insulate a party from liability...."4 The release provision involved here expressly releases Planet Fitness from any liability for any injury resulting from the negligence of Planet Fitness, whether related to exercise or not. It expressly releases Planet Fitness from any and all claims or causes of action. The provision's language is clear and unequivocal.

It must also not be unconscionable. Unconscionability is a concept that is used sparingly.5 Traditionally, an unconscionable contract is one which "no man in his senses and not under delusion would make on the one hand, and as no honest or fair man would accept, on the other."6 "But mere disparity between the bargaining powers of parties to a contract will not support a finding of unconscionability."7 "[T]here must be an absence of meaningful choice and contract terms unreasonably favorable to one of the parties."8 There is no deprivation of meaningful choice if a party can walk away from the contract.9 Here, DeShaun was free to accept the Planet Fitness membership or not. The Superior Court did not err in concluding that the release is not unconscionable.

Finally, the release must not violate public policy. The public policy of this state is typically determined by the Delaware General Assembly. No Delaware statute has been identified which bears on the validity of a release of prospective negligence. The Ketlers argue that the release violates the public policy embodied in the principle that a...

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