For those of us who love keeping fit, it’s important to know what rights we maintain after signing a gym membership. It’s also good to understand what the law says in the case of an injury or accident, especially with so many 24-hour gyms left unattended for several hours a day.
Know what you're signing up for
When you sign up to a gym, the rights you keep or give away will depend on the contract you sign, which is all the more reason to read the fine print.
Usually a gym will include a waiver in your membership contract. The waiver is created so that in the event of an injury, you aren’t able to sue for compensation. But signing a waiver doesn’t prevent you from taking legal action. The law still requires that gyms provide their members with services that are:
- rendered with due care and skill
- fit for their purpose.
It’s possible that waivers can give gyms too much protection, and for many people, they might be difficult to understand. The law clearly states that any occupiers of a property, including gym owners, have a duty of care to people who they can reasonably expect will be on their premises.
So, even though you might sign a waiver, the law allows you to sue a gym if they breach their duty of care by failing to, for example, prepare equipment in a safe manner, or to provide proper supervision. One example would be if a treadmill wasn't kept in working order and caused you to slip while running. This injury would be due to the gym's negligence.
You should also be aware of your financial rights. Gyms often have their members sign long-term contracts, so you should be comfortable with how much money you’re expected to pay for the entire length of that contract. They’re often hard to get out of.
Being safe around equipment
Let’s say you’re using gym equipment – whose fault is it if you sustain an injury? It depends on the circumstances. Generally a gym will be liable if the equipment is faulty, or hasn’t been maintained properly. Imagine using a piece of weight-pulling machinery when a faulty cable snaps.
On the other hand, if the equipment has been kept in good order, and you sustain an injury due to misusing a piece of equipment, it’s unlikely the gym will be found liable. This would cover instances of, say, a member attempting to lift too many weights at once, beyond their capability. And you may not be able to blame the gym if you break your ankle by falling off a cardio machine because you zoned out while running.
When an injury is caused by someone else, such as another gym member, that person is specifically at fault. For example, a member might be using a weight in a negligent manner and drop it on your foot. Circumstances will differ, but it may be possible to make a compensation claim against that person – doing so against the gym is unlikely to succeed.
Personal trainers are renowned for pushing their clients to their limits. If you sustain an injury while operating equipment under the supervision of a personal trainer, you may have a claim against either the trainer or the gym. However, the injury must have been caused by the negligence of either the trainer, or the gym.
If you were injured by something else, like aggravating an injury the trainer didn’t know about, it’s unlikely a claim against the trainer would succeed. If you neglect to tell your trainer about an old knee injury, you may not be able to turn around and blame them for setting you a particularly heavy set of lunges. That's why it’s important to let your trainer know if you have any injuries or conditions that could affect your ability to perform exercise.
One aspect of gyms some people find unsettling is the unsupervised nature of 24-hour facilities. While these gyms are often staffed during normal business hours, at other times there may be no staff present.
If you’re injured while no one else is around, the cause of the injury will usually determine who is at fault.
In the event of faulty equipment, you may have a case against the gym. But if the gym equipment and premises are kept in good condition, and your injury is due to your inexperience, improper use of equipment or another factor – such as wearing clothing not suitable for exercise – then the gym isn’t likely to be found liable for the injury.
So heading into the gym at 3am for your first-ever heavy weights session is probably not such a great idea. And, when there's no-one else around, it's not advisable to try out that new machine in the corner.
What are your legal rights?
While gym members may sign a waiver as part of their membership paperwork, that doesn’t stop them from seeking compensation if a gym was negligent and that negligence resulted in an injury.
Gyms still have an obligation to protect their members, to ensure their equipment is kept in good working order, and to offer a safe environment in which to exercise.
Dimi Ioannou is a principal in Maurice Blackburn’s Melbourne office.