Q: Everybody these days is looking to file a lawsuit. What happens if a client is injured because a personal trainer screws up?
A: Americans tend to be a litigious group: when somebody gets hurt, a lawsuit gets filed. Some personal trainers think a liability waiver protects them from being sued. Wrong. Anyone can be sued. A signed release only protects against certain claims, and some states heavily scrutinize releases or won’t enforce them at all as a matter of public policy. Other trainers think they don’t need liability insurance if they have a signed release. Wrong again. To avoid digging into your own pocket for legal defense or settlement costs, having insurance is essential.
Working out assumes certain risks; e.g., you can tear a muscle, tendon or ligament. “Assumption of the risk” is a legal defense that can protect trainers from lawsuits resulting from those kinds of foreseeable injuries that are inherently involved in exercise. But it won’t protect a trainer who injures a client by a negligent, reckless, or intentional act (“negligence” is failing to exercise the care that a reasonable or prudent person would exercise under the circumstances).
News headlines report examples of lawsuits against personal trainers for negligent conduct. For example, when a trainer lifted his client onto a bosu balance ball and walked away, the client fell, fracturing her hip and wrist, requiring surgery. She sued, and the court cited several ways in which the trainer was negligent, including: 1) he failed to ask about the woman’s medical history before training (she had a surgically fused ankle); 2) given her medical history, she should not have been instructed to use a bosu ball; and 3) the trainer failed to instruct her properly on the equipment. The case reportedly settled for $750,000.1
In another case, a trainer instructed the client to perform an intense workout consisting of burpees, jumping jacks and deadlifts after being informed of the client’s prior back surgery. The client severely damaged spinal disks, requiring two further surgeries. It was noted that the trainer: 1) lacked a current certification; 2) failed to keep program records; and 3) had no recent continuing education courses. She sued, and was awarded $1.4 million (less 30% for her own negligence).2
In another case, the client complained to his trainer about dizziness and vision problems. The trainer insisted that he continue exercising. The client left the gym and went to the hospital where he was diagnosed with a right internal artery dissection and suffered a stroke. The lawsuit alleged that the trainer: 1) failed to monitor the client adequately; 2) instructed him to continue exercising even after he complained that he was not feeling well; 3) failed to warn him of the dangers of continuing to exercise in that condition; and 4) failed to call for emergency medical assistance. Jury verdict: a whopping $14.5 million for the plaintiff (less 25% for plaintiff’s negligence).3
I’ve recently spoken at two conferences of the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA.org) on the topic of risk management – what trainers can do to safely train their clients while protecting themselves against lawsuits. Besides liability waivers and insurance, trainers should:
Conduct a thorough pre-training interview, including assessments for past surgeries, coronary risk factors, diagnosed diseases, and lifestyle;Refer to an allied health professional when necessary to obtain medical clearance and program recommendations;Keep records and documentation, including intake forms, program records, workout notes, and client medical records;Get certified and maintain certification through continuing education;Design programs that are appropriate, not excessive, for the client’s individual capabilities and limitations;Inspect the facility and/or equipment to ensure proper working order (e.g., if a cable snaps, the question will be whether the trainer checked it to see if it was frayed);Instruct clients thoroughly on proper equipment use and exercise performance;Supervise clients closely, especially those who are unfamiliar with the equipment (one lawsuit ensued when a trainer put a sedentary woman on a treadmill at 3.5 mph; she drifted backwards and fell off the end of the treadmill, fracturing her ankle);Carefully monitor for signs of medical distress, such as stroke or heart attack, and call 911 when warranted (stay off your cell phone and pay attention!).
At a time when so many Americans are sedentary, overweight or obese, personal trainers can play an important role in improving people’s health and vitality. Being mindful of the key points above can benefit clients and save trainers from very costly mistakes.
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