Personal trainers are becoming more and more popular across the U.S. as Americans sign up for health club memberships and participate in wellness programs at work.
Given how common and even trendy it has become to hire a personal trainer, many people assume that personal trainers are uniquely equipped to help them lose weight, build and tone muscle, and otherwise learn how to use a health club gym in the most effective way.
However, many people ultimately suffer serious and debilitating injuries while working with personal trainers.
While the rate of hiring personal trainers continues to increase across the country, more people are also filing injury claims against their personal trainers and the health clubs that employ them.
Liability Laws and Cases Filed Against Trainers
A person injured as a result of a personal trainer’s negligence may be able to file a claim against the personal trainer or, in some cases, the health club or gym that employs the personal trainer.
Many personal trainers own their businesses themselves and are not employed directly by a health club or gym, but rather are independent contractors.
When a personal trainer is negligent, typically the personal trainer and/or the health club where training took place may be liable. Most personal injury lawsuits against a personal trainer are based on a theory of negligence. Each state has its own laws concerning negligence.
Generally speaking, however, in order to win a negligence claim, a plaintiff (in this case, a person injured because of a personal trainer’s negligence) must be able to show the following elements of a claim:
- Personal trainer owed the plaintiff a duty of care.
- Personal trainer breached the duty of care by being negligent.
- Plaintiff suffered an injury.
- Plaintiff’s injury resulted from the personal trainer’s breach of the duty of care.
What is a duty of care and when does it attach? Although a patient’s relationship with a healthcare provider is much different from a client’s relationship with a personal trainer, the analogy can be instructive. In the case of a doctor-patient relationship, the duty of care attaches as soon as the doctor becomes the patient’s healthcare provider.
In other words, as soon as a patient seeks a diagnosis or treatment from a healthcare provider, that healthcare provider owes the patient a duty of care. Somewhat similarly, when someone hires a personal trainer — as soon as that client relationship begins—the personal trainer typically owes a duty of care.
A client relationship with the personal trainer exists with the understanding that the trainer has specialized knowledge about health and fitness, and that the trainer has the capacity to train the client. If the trainer is negligent and breaches that duty of care, the trainer may be liable for damages related to the injuries sustained.
In addition to lawsuits against personal trainers based on negligence, there may be other legal theories under to pursue against a personal trainer. For example, you may be able to sue a personal trainer as a result of false advertising or failing to deliver the information or results promised. Rather than an injury claim, these are often contract law claims in which the plaintiff is not necessarily injured but is simply displeased with the services provided by the personal trainer. At the same time, however, it is important to understand that these issues can intersect.
To be sure, a client may be dissatisfied with a personal trainer’s work as a result of suffering an injury. For example, the personal trainer may have entered into a contract with the client promising to provide the client with specialized workout routines tailored to the client’s needs, in addition to promising to provide the client with particular knowledge about using certain gym equipment.
The client ultimately may have been injured because the personal trainer provided incorrect information about using a particular piece of gym equipment. In such a case, the injured client may have both a personal injury lawsuit based on a theory of negligence as well as a contract law claim arising out of a breach of contract.
Licensing for Personal Trainers
When someone has been injured by a personal trainer or sustained injuries at a gym where a personal trainer works, it will be important for to know whether your personal trainer is a licensed professional, has a personal training certification, or has no licensure or certification. Such distinctions could make a difference when it comes time to filing a personal injury claim.
Generally speaking, there are no states in the U.S. that currently require personal trainers to be licensed in order to work as personal trainers. Indeed, the personal training industry is largely unregulated despite the fact that numerous states have attempted to require personal trainers to get licensed in order to work there.
The only area in the country that has taken any definitive steps toward something like licensure is Washington, D.C. Under the Omnibus Health Regulation Amendment Act of 2013, local personal trainers need to register as such with the mayor’s office.
However, numerous states have attempted to require licensure for personal trainers. To be sure, a variety of states across the U.S. have been working to pass such legislation for the last 30 years. Both Florida and Massachusetts, for example, continue to attempt to pass such legislation, albeit unsuccessfully.
Why are personal trainers able to work without a state license? Some people suggest that health club owners play a substantial role in preventing licensure as a requirement since it would likely result in personal trainers seeking higher wages.
At the same time, however, licensure would prevent amateurs from identifying themselves as personal trainers and working with clients who ultimately get injured as a result of the trainers’ inexperience.
Although personal trainers do not have to be licensed, personal trainers can get certified. Many larger health clubs across the country require personal trainers they hire to be certified in some capacity. While health clubs often do require personal trainers to have particular certifications, that fact alone does not mean that the clubs require trainers to maintain their certifications and keep them up-to-date.
Since this area is not regulated by state or federal law, health clubs are not required to abide by any particular standard in hiring practices when it comes to professional trainer certifications or to require professional trainers to keep their certifications up-to-date.
There are a wide variety of certification options for personal trainers. Two of the most common are certifications through the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) and the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM).
Personal trainers often choose from one of the following certification programs:
- Academy of Applied Personal Training Education (AAPTE).
- ACTION Certification.
- American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM).
- American Council on Exercise (ACE).
- Cooper Institute (CI).
- International Fitness Professionals Association.
- National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM).
- National Council on Strength and Fitness (NCSF).
- National Exercise and Sports Trainers Association (NESTA).
- National Exercise Trainers Association (NETA).
- National Federation of Professional Trainers (NFPT).
- National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA).
- PTA Global.
Some of the certification programs require potential new personal trainers to have cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and automated external defibrillator (AED) training, but not all of them do.
Most of the certification programs require a potential new personal trainer to pay an exam fee, pass the exam, be at least 18 years of age, and have a high school diploma or its equivalent.
Common Injuries Claimed Against Personal Trainers
While there are a wide variety of injuries that a person might sustain in a gym as a result of a personal trainer’s negligence, some types of claims are more common than others.
Examples of common injuries that people suffer as a result of a personal trainer’s negligence or incompetence include but are not limited to the following:
- Broken bones or fractures;
- Strained muscles;
- Sprained muscles;
- Muscle tears;
- Spinal cord injuries (SCIs);
- Nerve damage; and
- Traumatic brain injuries (TBIs).
- Death, from heart attacks or other conditions
A total of 4975 injuries were reported by 605 personal trainers, according to a recent study published in Orthopedic Reviews.
According to the results of a survey distributed to personal trainers, lower extremity injuries accounted for 50.4% of all injuries reported, while upper extremity injuries made up 22.4%.
The most common injuries seen by personal trainers during sessions were lumbar muscle strains, rotator cuff tear/tendonitis, shin splints, ankle sprain, and cervical muscle strains. The pie chart below illustrates the most common injuries reported.
|Type of Injury||Total Injuries||Percentage|
|Upper extremity injuries||1117||22.5%|
|Lumbar spine injuries||724||14.6%|
|Lower extremity injuries||2508||50.4%|
In many cases of personal trainer injuries, the client experiences a worsening of an existing injury or condition as a result of the personal trainer’s negligence.
It is a personal trainer’s job to understand the exercises a particular individual needs and is able to perform without injury. For example, as that article explains, many clients come to personal trainers with existing injuries such as lumbar muscle strains, rotator cuff tears, tendonitis, ankle sprains, shin splints, and even cervical muscle strains.
A personal trainer is expected to rely on his or her education and certification to understand each client’s existing conditions and to develop a personal training strategy that is tailored to that client’s needs. A failure to do so, which results in the worsening of an existing injury, can be a form of negligence or a breach of the duty of care.
Accordingly, in such scenarios, the client may be able to file a personal injury training claim against the personal trainer or the gym.
Common Liability Claims Against Personal Trainers and Gyms
What are some of the ways in which a personal trainer can be negligent? In answering this question, it is important to remember that you might suffer an injury while working with a personal trainer that is not a result of the personal trainer’s negligence or error. Indeed, some types of exercises or gym machine uses come with risks.
Common allegations against personal trainers and gyms where those personal trainers work may include but certainly are not limited to the following:
- Personal trainer did not take into account your pre-existing injuries or medical conditions when developing a training schedule or regimen for you.
- Personal trainer told you to perform the wrong types of exercises.
- Personal trainer recommended that you lift too much weight (or more weight than you could physically handle).
- Personal trainer did not provide corrective guidance when you used improper form on an exercise machine or while doing a particular type of aerobic exercise.
- Personal trainer did not supervise you properly while you were doing a particular type of exercise or using a certain gym machine.
- Personal trainer had you exercise for too much time.
- Personal trainer recommended certain health supplements that had a harmful interaction with supplements or medications that you were currently taking.
Lawsuits Against Health Clubs or Gyms Where Personal Trainers Work
When a personal trainer is an employee of a health club or a gym, the client may be able to file a claim against that health club or gym if an injury resulted from the personal trainer’s negligence. There are two general to sue the health club or gym:
- Vicarious liability; or
- Negligent hiring, supervising, or training.
What is vicarious liability? According to the Cornell Legal Information Institute, vicarious liability is “liability that a supervisory party (such as an employer) bears for the actionable conduct of a subordinate or associate (such as an employee) based on the relationship between the two parties.”
To put it another way, vicarious liability means that an employer can be liable for the negligence or other actions of its employees when the cause of action arises out of the employee’s work for the employer.
An employee cannot be liable under a theory of vicarious liability for an employee’s actions in his or her time off from work, but the employee may be liable for the employee’s actions when those actions occur within the scope of the employee’s work.
Another type of negligence claim against the health club or gym is for negligent hiring, supervising, or training.
The elements of this type of claim depend upon the state in which you file your lawsuit. Generally speaking, a plaintiff in this type of negligence case must be able to prove the following elements:
- Personal trainer was not able to perform his or her job competently (due to any number of factors such as improper training or even lack of certification or ability to pass a certification exam).
- Health club or gym knew or should have known about the personal trainer’s inability to competently perform the job.
- Personal trainer’s inability to perform his or her job competently caused your injuries.
- Health club or gym’s hiring of, improper training of, or improper supervision of the personal trainer played a role in you sustaining your injuries.
Since negligence claims are generally filed in local courts under state laws, laws vary from state to state. Because the case law surrounding personal trainer negligence and, more specifically, negligent hiring, training, and/or supervising in a lawsuit against a health club or gym is different in every state, the success of the case will depend on the relevant law where the injury occurred.
Waivers and Other Defenses in Different States: Do They Bar Lawsuits?
There are various defenses that the personal trainer and health club might raise depending upon the state where the claim is filed. Those defenses may include the following:
- The client signed a liability waiver.
- Assumption of the risk (you assumed the risk).
- Comparative fault/contributory negligence.
One of the most common defenses to a claim against a personal trainer is that the client signed a liability waiver. Most waivers have language that forfeit the right to file a liability claim or injury lawsuit against the trainer or gym. Sometimes a waiver is known as a liability release form.
However, while signing a waiver can in some circumstances bar a lawsuit, this is not always the case. If a waiver was signed and client did not have the capacity to release the trainer from liability or to expressly assume certain risks, the waiver may not be upheld in court.
Moreover, in cases where the trainer was grossly negligent — negligence that goes beyond ordinary negligence — a waiver may not bar a claim. Case law in different states can affect whether a waiver may bar a lawsuit.
How about assumption of the risk? Sometimes a personal trainer or a gym will argue the client assumed the risk associated with a dangerous exercise or use of a particular piece of dangerous equipment.
In order to use assumption of the risk as a defense, the trainer or gym would need to be able to prove the person actually understood the risk, and still decided to move forward with the exercise or use of equipment despite the risk.
Finally, depending upon the state, a personal trainer may use the defense of comparative fault or contributory negligence. In such a scenario, the trainer may argue that the client is partially to blame for his or her own injuries. For example, a person who failed to tell a trainer about a preexisting injury or condition may be deemed comparatively negligent.
If a jury finds comparative negligence, any verdict award will be reduced by that plaintiff’s own percentage of fault. In some states, a finding of a high percentage of comparative fault will dismiss the entire claim. For example, under Michigan’s comparative fault law, a plaintiff is only barred from recovery if she is 51% or more at fault. If the plaintiff is less than 51% at fault, her recovery is reduced by her percentage of fault.
Other states still follow a “pure” comparative fault model in which a plaintiff can recover regardless of how the degree of fault — the recovery will not be barred — but the award will be reduced by the percentage of fault even if the plaintiff is 99% at fault.
Summary of Settlements and Verdicts in Personal Trainer Injury Claims
Many personal trainer lawsuits have occurred in states across the country. The following is a summary of some recent settlements and verdicts against personal trainers:
• $14.5 million jury award in a Connecticut case, Vaid v. Equinox Greenwich Old Track Road., Inc. (2016): In this case, the plaintiff alleged that the personal trainer negligently had the plaintiff use a rowing machine with a resistance level that was set too high. Then, the plaintiff argued, the trainer was aggressive in urging further exercise after the plaintiff complained of dizziness, blurred vision, and fatigue. The plaintiff suffered from a carotid artery dissection and ultimately suffered a stroke. The court determined that the plaintiff was partially at fault (by 25%) but the plaintiff still recovered $10.875 million.
• $1.4 million verdict in New York, Baldi-Perry v. Kafas (2010): Plaintiff alleged that the trainer forced her to undergo a workout even though she had a history of back and neck injuries. The jury found for the plaintiff but also determined that the plaintiff was 30% at fault. Accordingly, the plaintiff’s recovery was reduced by 30% and she recovered a total of $980,000.
• $750,000 Connecticut mediation award, Butler v. Saville: Plaintiff fell while using a Bosu Ball during a workout that was directed by a personal trainer. The claim alleged that the personal trainer lacked proper training.
• Unsuccessful claim in Pennsylvania claim, Evans v. Fitness & Sports Club (2016): A 61-year-old plaintiff sued a personal trainer for forcing her to perform “suicide runs.” The plaintiff fell and sustained a wrist injury, but the court ultimately found for the trainer.
Insurance Coverage Issues and Insurance Policies for Personal Trainers
You may know that physicians and other healthcare providers have malpractice insurance, which is insurance that covers them in the event that a patient suffers an injury as a result of medical negligence. Accordingly, when a patient gets hurt and files a claim, they may be able to obtain compensation from the healthcare provider’s insurance.
Likewise, property owners have liability insurance designed to provide coverage to someone who gets hurt on the property in, for example, a slip and fall accident. Automobile owners also must have liability insurance that can provide compensation to a person who gets hurt as a result of the automobile owner’s negligence.
Similar to other types of malpractice or liability insurance, personal trainers can also purchase insurance that can provide coverage to injured clients in the event the personal trainer’s negligence causes an injury. However, most personal trainers are not required to have liability insurance in the event a client gets hurt.
Some health clubs that hire personal trainers may require their trainers to have liability insurance, but this is not true of all clubs.
When a personal trainer does have liability insurance, the first step in seeking compensation likely will be to file an insurance claim through the personal trainer’s insurance company. If the personal trainer is liable for injuries, his or her insurance may compensate an injured client.
If the personal trainer does not have insurance, the injured client may be able to file a personal injury lawsuit against the personal trainer directly. Or, in some cases, the injured client may be able to seek compensation through the health club’s insurance if the personal trainer was employed by a health club.
According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), all personal trainers should carry general liability insurance. As the NASM explains, any newly certified personal trainer should purchase insurance that can provide compensation in the event of a client injury or even client dissatisfaction. Next Insurance, Inc. is a common insurer for personal trainers and provides different types of personal trainer insurance products, according to the NASM.
Other insurance companies also offer various types and amounts of liability insurance for personal trainers. If a person is injured and the personal trainer does have insurance, there may still be a situation in which the personal trainer has not purchased sufficient insurance to cover the total damages. In other words, the personal trainer may be underinsured.
Most health clubs or gyms must have insurance. As discussed above, when a personal trainer is an employee of the health club, the health club may be liable for the employee’s actions. Accordingly, an injured client may be able to start the process of seeking compensation by filing an insurance claim with the health club’s insurer.
In situations where the injured client is unable to obtain a fair settlement offer from the insurance company or to receive full compensation, that injured person may be able to file a lawsuit against the health club or gym that employs the personal trainer.
Statute of Limitations for Filing a Personal Trainer Injury Claim
Every state has a statute of limitations for personal injury lawsuits. The statute of limitations is a time window or “clock” that usually begins “ticking” on the date of the injury.
Once the clock has run out or the time window is up, a plaintiff will be barred from filing a civil lawsuit. These cases are known as “time-barred” claims.
Each state has a particular statute of limitations for personal injury lawsuits that typically range from one to four years. For example, under Michigan law, the statute of limitations for a personal injury lawsuit is two years from the date of the injury.
Accordingly, a person who suffers a personal training injury in Michigan has three years from the date of the injury to file a lawsuit against the personal trainer or the gym that employs the personal trainer.
If the injured person fails to file a lawsuit within that three-year time window in Michigan, the claim will become time-barred and that injured person will not be eligible to file a lawsuit to seek compensation.
Constantly Changing Laws for Personal Trainer Lawsuits
The laws frequently change for personal injury lawsuits and cases against trainers and health clubs are no different.
Many states have specific laws that deal with these cases and the health club lobbyists are always demanding more protection from legislatures and politicians. Additionally, the common law case law continues to develop in every state to address both new lawsuits and appeals on existing personal trainer lawsuits.
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