Stelluti v. Casapenn Enter.s Llc.

Decision Date05 August 2010
Citation203 N.J. 286,1 A.3d 678
CourtNew Jersey Supreme Court
PartiesGina STELLUTI, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. CASAPENN ENTERPRISES, LLC, d/b/a Powerhouse Gym, Defendant-Respondent, and ABI Property Partnership, d/b/a Pavilion Center and Star Trac Fitness, Defendants.

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Edward A. Genz argued the cause for appellant (Montenegro, Thompson, Montenegro & Genz, attorneys). Russell S. Massey argued the cause for respondent (Billet & Associates, attorneys; Mr. Massey and Robert Douglas Billet, on the briefs).

E. Drew Britcher, Glen Rock, submitted a brief on behalf of amicus curiae New Jersey Association For Justice (Britcher, Leone & Roth, attorneys; Mr. Britcher and Jessica E. Choper, on the brief).

Justice LaVECCHIA delivered the opinion of the Court.

On January 13, 2004, while participating in a spinning 1 class at a private fitness center, the handlebars on plaintiff Gina Stelluti's spin bike dislodged from the bike, causing her to fall and suffer injuries. In this appeal we must determine whether plaintiff should be bound to a pre-injury waiver of liability that she executed in connection with her membership application and agreement. We conclude, for the reasons expressed herein, that the exculpatory agreement between the fitness center and Stelluti is enforceable as to the injury Stelluti sustained when riding the spin bike. In doing so we reject the argument that limited liability waivers are per se invalid in private fitness center venues. Our decision affirms the Appellate Division judgment that upheld the dismissal of plaintiff's claim.

I.

Stelluti entered into an agreement with defendant Powerhouse Gym 2 for membership at its Brick, New Jersey facility. To do so, she filled out three forms: a “Membership Agreement” form; a “Member Information” form; and a “Health/Safety Consent” form. The “Member Agreement” and “Member Information” forms requested basic personal information. The “Health/Safety Consent” form asked a series of questions about the patron's physical condition, and further, required a patron answering “yes” to any question to submit a doctor's note before commencing physical activity. The form also encouraged patrons to wear “proper footwear and attire,” to ask for assistance with equipment or classes, and to notify the manager if medical assistance was needed.

Stelluti completed the forms, signed and dated them, and answered “no” in response to all questions on the “Health/Safety Consent” form. That same day, she also signed and dated a “Powerhouse Fitness (The Club) Waiver & Release Form” (waiver). 3 The waiver, a standard pre-printed form drafted exclusively for Powerhouse, provided as follows:POWERHOUSE FITNESS (The Club)

WAIVER & RELEASE FORM

Because physical exercise can be strenuous and subject to risk of serious injury, the club urges you to obtain a physical examination from a doctor before using any exercise equipment or participating in any exercise activity. You (each member, guest, and all participating family members) agree that if you engage in any physical exercise or activity, or use any club amenity on the premises or off premises including any sponsored club event, you do so entirely at your own risk. Any recommendation for changes in diet including the use of food supplements, weight reduction and or body building enhancement products are entirely your responsibility and you should consult a physician prior to undergoing any dietary or food supplement changes. You agree that you are voluntarily participating in these activities and use of these facilities and premises and assume all risks of injury, illness, or death. We are also not responsible for any loss of your personal property.
This waiver and release of liability includes, without limitation, all injuries which may occur as a result of, (a) your use of all amenities and equipment in the facility and your participation in any activity, class, program, personal training or instruction, (b) the sudden and unforeseen malfunctioning of any equipment, (c) our instruction, training, supervision, or dietary recommendations, and (d) your slipping and/or falling while in the club, or on the club premises, including adjacent sidewalks and parking areas.
You acknowledge that you have carefully read this “waiver and release” and fully understand that it is a release of liability. You expressly agree to release and discharge the health club, and all affiliates, employees, agents, representatives,

successors, or assigns, from any and all claims or causes of action and you agree to voluntarily give up or waive any right that you may otherwise have to bring a legal action against the club for personal injury or property damage.

To the extent that statute or case law does not prohibit releases for negligence, this release is also for negligence on the part of the Club, its agents, and employees.
If any portion of this release from liability shall be deemed by a Court of competent jurisdiction to be invalid, then the remainder of this release from liability shall remain in full force and effect and the offending provision or provisions severed here from.
By signing this release, I acknowledge that I understand its content and that this release cannot be modified orally.
Signed: /s/ Gina Stelluti Names of family members (if applicable):
Printed Name:
Dated: 1/13/04

Any patron who declined to sign the waiver was not permitted to use the Powerhouse Gym.

Stelluti's injury occurred at the gym the day that she joined. After signing the requisite paperwork to become a member, she went to participate in a spinning class. She advised the instructor of her inexperience and the instructor helped her to adjust the bike seat for height and showed her how to strap her feet to the pedals. The instructor then told Stelluti to watch and imitate her during the class.

As the class began, the participants started out pedaling in a seated position. Shortly afterward, the instructor told the participants to change from a seated to a standing position on their bikes. When Stelluti rose to a standing position, the handlebars dislodged from the bike. 4 As a result, Stelluti fell forward while her feet remained strapped to the pedals. With assistance, she succeeded in detaching herself from the bike. When she tried to resume participation after resting for fifteen minutes, she soon had to quit, finding herself in too much pain to continue.

Stelluti's injuries included pain in her neck and shoulders, soreness in her thighs and back, a cracked tooth, and bruises on her legs. After a hospital visit, she was diagnosed with back and neck strain, prescribed medication, and discharged with a recommendation for a follow-up appointment with a doctor. She claims also to experience persistent pain as a result of the incident. Her medical expert has stated that three years after her accident Stelluti suffers from chronic pain associated with myofascial pain syndrome. 5

Stelluti filed a timely complaint for damages in the Law Division against Powerhouse; Star Trac, the manufacturer of the spin bikes used at Powerhouse; and ABI Property Partnership, the premises owner. The complaint alleged the following negligence claims against Powerhouse and ABI: 1) “fail[ing] to properly maintain and set up the stationary bike”; 2) “fail [ing] to properly instruct the plaintiff as to how to use the bike [or] exercise proper care”; 3) “caus[ing] a dangerous and hazardous condition to exist”; 4) “allow[ing] a nuisance to exist”; 5) “fail [ing] to provide proper safeguards or warnings on the bike”; 6) “fail[ing] to provide proper and safe equipment”; 7) “maintain[ing] the bike in an unsafe, hazardous and/or defective manner”; and 8) acting in “a negligent, careless and reckless manner so as to cause an unsafe hazardous and/or defective condition to exist ... [and failing] to provide proper safeguards and/or warnings.” Plaintiff also asserted a products liability claim against Star Trac Fitness. 6

This appeal comes to us from a summary judgment record. That record reveals the following contrasting views about the spin bike that was involved in Stelluti's fall and resultant injuries.

Powerhouse submitted an expert liability report that described the mechanics of a Star Trac Fitness Johnny G. Spinner Pro bike. According to that expert's examination of an exemplar bike, 7 the handlebars have a chrome stem post and the entire, unitary piece-handlebars and post-may be detached and separated from the bike frame. The chrome post, which is approximately seven inches tall, contains seven elevation positioning holes, each approximately three-quarters of an inch apart. At the lower end of the post, a horizontal line and arrow, pointing down to the word “Maximum,” indicates the furthest extension point of the post. However, Powerhouse's expert opined that an inexperienced user “would not notice th[at] mark.” The chrome post fits into a vertical support member that extends from the bike's frame base. A locking pin-a threaded rod fitted with a spring-loaded pin and handle-secures the post to the frame. The pin is inserted into one of the elevation holes and is locked into place by tightening its handle. The expert noted that there is “no noticeable difference” between the appearance of the post when it is locked in place or when the post merely is resting on top of an elevation locking pin. Powerhouse's expert concluded that plaintiff's accident “occurred because the handlebars present on the stationary exercise bicycle that she was using unexpectedly and without warning separated from the bicycle causing her to fall.”

Stelluti's liability expert, a college professor with an advanced degree in physical education and certifications in specialized fitness activities including spinning instruction, issued a report that opined that Powerhouse was “negligent in providing a safe environment” and,...

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  • PREMISES LIABILITY. Fall Down. $______ RECOVERY
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    ...the plaintiff would be required to show that the referee acted in a grossly negligent manner. Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 300 (2010). The defendant contended that the incident occurred when the ball was being passed to the plaintiff and that the goalie acted appropr......

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