It is often said that, if you stay in business long enough, you are going to be sued. Lawsuits are a fact of life and unfortunately, in this great country of ours, bringing suit against business owners has become almost routine. Claims and litigation brought against health club owners can not only be time consuming, but can also disrupt business. In smaller communities it can even affect the club’s reputation. Insurance can protect us from most claims, but, lets face it, litigation is a messy business. Nobody enjoys receiving a subpoena or summons. I think we all agree that the only people who benefit from litigation are the attorneys.

Unfortunately, the term “accountability” has somehow lost its meaning in today’s society. When it comes to personal injury, more and more Americans have adopted the battle cry, “It’s not my fault”. Nowhere is that sentiment more vigorously expressed than in a health club. There are times when accidents are the result of negligence on the part of the health club and we, as owners, should ultimately be responsible. This is why we buy insurance. However, for purposes of this article, I will be addressing the non-negligent “premises medical” related claims and the all too common “nuisance” claims.

How we, as club owners, handle accidents that occur at the club can greatly influence the disposition of a claim. Members are going to fall off treadmills, drop weights on their own feet, twist their ankles in an aerobics class, and slip in the shower. Accidents do happen and members will injure themselves. However, history has shown that the vast majority of these injuries are self inflicted or can be attributed to member carelessness. So why do some members acknowledge accountability for their mistakes and get on with their lives while other members rush home and phone the law firm of Dewey, Cheetum, and Howe? The answer to this question has bothered me for years. I am convinced that part of the answer can be explained by the geographical location of the club. You can argue with me all you want, but a club located on Long Island will receive a lot more attorney letters than a club in Kansas City. The more important part of the answer, however, can be attributed to the “atmosphere” of the club. The safest and most profitable clubs in the country have incredible atmosphere. The fitness equipment is state of the art, the member service is impeccable and the locker rooms are cleaner than your mom’s bathroom. In short, the member is proud of their club and genuinely enjoys their workout experience. On the other side of coin, if the member has been “drop-closed” on a long term contract; has to constantly wait in line to use the cardio; is forced to use an unsanitary rest room; and remains anonymous in the club because know one will take the time to help them, this member can become real trouble down the road. Not only are they unlikely to renew their membership, but if they hurt themselves working out at your club, there is a good chance that we will be hearing from their attorney. The very foundation of Risk Management and Club Safety can be summarized by two words; CUSTOMER SERVICE.

Here are a few questions that we should be asking ourselves. “Is my club sales driven or service driven? Does my staff greet all member’s by their first name? Do we regularly seek feedback from our members or at least ask them how they are doing or if they would like some assistance? Do we thank our members for coming to the club; for buying a shake; for purchasing a sweatshirt? Do we thank them for their business?”

Taking a genuine interest in your member’s life at the club sends a powerful message. It not only goes along way toward the development of good customer service, but it sets up a strong relationship between you and your member. When our members feel that they are noticed and appreciated, they are far less likely to bring a claim against you, if and when they are ever injured at the club. Bottom line folks, friends don’t sue friends.

Treating people with respect and courtesy is the formula for creating a “suit-resistant” environment. However, there are other components that need to be in place as well. Here are a few other questions that we need to be asking ourselves.

  1. Is the “hold-harmless” or “waiver” wording in our membership agreement in compliance with State statutes? Most states now recognize the validity of a waiver and most will recognize the doctrine of “assumption of risk”. However, if your waiver is improperly written, too ambiguous, or not easily noticed on the membership agreement, it is probably worthless. Get advice from your local attorney.
  2. Do we make it a point to “offer” an orientation to all members and their guests? Attorney’s will frequently attack the club when their client is injured by stating that the member was never shown the proper use of the piece of equipment or never shown proper exercise technique. It is impractical for our staff to demonstrate proper form and technique on every piece of exercise equipment in the club. The key here is that we need to “offer”. Your membership agreement should state clearly that “If at any time you are unfamiliar with the use of any of the club’s equipment or if you would like to be shown proper technique, please ask one of the staff for assistance.” Putting this wording on a large sign on the wall wouldn’t hurt either. Kind of sounds a little like customer service; doesn’t it?
  3. Do we have systems and written procedures in place that outline what is expected of our employees? A well trained employee knows what is expected of them and understands their importance in the club. They are also the ones that are in constant contact with our members. Do they share the same customer service goals as the owners?
  4. Do we post the Club Policy and Guidelines? Members want to know what is expected of them as well. “Club Policies” outline the rules of the club in a non-confrontational manner and set a precedent for dealing with those members who are reckless to themselves and others.

Despite all of our best intentions and excellent customer service practices, as club owners, we are still likely to be sued. It only takes one disgruntled member. The industry average shows that a health club will be sued at least once every four years. Don’t make yourselves crazy by trying to implement the perfect risk management system in your club. Accept that there are some things we have no control over. Just have fun, make money and practice the Golden Rule.