Waiver Trips Up Injury Case Against YMCA

In an extremely short opinion in a recent premises liability case, the Court of Appeals overturned a trial court and ordered summary judgment be entered for defendant on remand due to a release agreement plaintiff had signed.

In Gibson v. Young Men’s Christian Association of Middle Tennessee, No. M2015-01465-COA-R9-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. May 16, 2016), plaintiff had joined her local YMCA. To become a member, plaintiff had signed a Membership Application, which stated:

In consideration of gaining membership and/or being allowed to participate in the activities and programs of the YMCA…, I do hereby waive, release, and forever discharge the YMCA…from any and all responsibility or liability for injuries or damages resulting from participation in such activities or programs or my use of such facilities, equipment or machinery, even if such damage or injury results from a negligent act or omission.

On a subsequent visit, plaintiff “tripped on an allegedly uneven or cracked sidewalk approximately twenty feet from the entrance[.]” She then filed suit, alleging negligence.

Defendant YMCA filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that plaintiff “expressly assumed the risk for her injuries by signing the Membership Agreement.” The trial court denied summary judgment, finding that “in entering the facilities [plaintiff] was in fact using the facilities, which was contemplated by the parties in the signing of the release[,]” but that there was “a question of fact as to whether [plaintiff ] and YMCA intended that the release…contemplated a trip and fall on a cracked or area of disrepair.”

In overturning the trial court, the Court of Appeals noted that exculpatory agreements are “analyzed under the doctrine of express assumption of the risk” in Tennessee, and that “express assumption of the risk is a complete defense to liability.” Here, the Court found that the language was clear and unambiguous, and that it intended to cover a situation such as this. The Court pointed out the trial court had found that the use of the sidewalk was a “use” within the terms of the Membership Agreement. The Court explained that “[w]hile [plaintiff] argues that she did not contemplate tripping and falling on a sidewalk in front of the YMCA when she signed the release, whether or not she contemplated that exact injury is immaterial because the agreement was not ambiguous.” The Court ultimately held that “because the trial court did not find ambiguity in the agreement but did find that [plaintiff] was using the facilities [per the agreement], summary judgment was proper in this case.”

This case is a good reminder of the importance of careful case selection for plaintiffs’ lawyers. It’s unclear whether plaintiff’s counsel here knew about the Membership Agreement before filing suit, but a pre-suit inquiry should be made of all fitness centers because  signing this type of agreement is typically required at most such facilities and indeed any facilities were physical activities are conducted (skating rinks, bounce-house facilities, etc.)