Torts II, Pages 637–641

Seigneur v. National Fitness Institute, Inc.

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland, 2000

Judgment:

Affirmed with costs.

Facts:

Plaintiff applied to join defendant's fitness club. As part of the application process, plaintiff had to sign an agreement, part of which said that plaintiff had to report all injuries to defendant, that plaintiff was responsible for all risks, that defendant was not liable for any injuries, and that plaintiff discharged defendant from all claims.

During the initial evaluation on the weight machines, plaintiff felt a tearing in her right shoulder and has since had pain and difficulty using it.

Procedural History:

The trial court ruled that defendant's exculpatory clause is enforceable.

Issues:

  • Was the exculpatory clause valid?

  • Did the exculpatory clause violate public policy?

Plaintiff's Argument:

The participation agreement was a contract of adhesion and the exculpatory clause is void as against public policy and being unclear and ambiguous.

Rules:

  • An exculpatory clause is valid as long as its language "clearly and specifically indicates the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant's negligence."

  • LexisNexis IconWestLaw LogoGoogle Scholar LogoPage 639, B., Paragraph 2

    In Maryland, unambiguous exculpatory clauses are generally held to be valid in the absence of legislation to the contrary.

    Exception:

    LexisNexis IconWestLaw LogoGoogle Scholar LogoPage 639, B., Paragraph 3

    Three exceptions have been identified where the public interest will render an exculpatory clause unenforceable. They are:

    1. when the party protected by the clause intentionally causes harm or engages in acts of reckless, wanton, or gross negligence;
    2. when the bargaining power of one party to the contract is so grossly unequal so as to put that party at the mercy of the other's negligence; and
    3. when the transaction involves the public interest.

    Explanation:

    LexisNexis IconWestLaw LogoGoogle Scholar LogoPage 641, Paragraph 3

    The ultimate determination of what constitutes the public interest must be made considering the totality of the circumstances of any given case against the backdrop of current societal expectations.

Reasoning:

  1. Plaintiff has not alleged defendant harmed her intentionally, recklessly, wantonly, or through gross acts of negligence.
  2. Although it was a contract of adhesion, several competitors offered the same non-essential services as defendant. As it was not an essential service, defendant cannot possess a decisive bargaining advantage.
  3. Defendant's service is not so essential that an exculpatory clause would be "patently offensive" to the citizens of Maryland.

Holding:

  • The contract expressed a clear intention to release defendant from liability for all acts of negligence.

  • The exculpatory clause did not violate public policy.

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