Is Your Health Club Exposed?

Liability lawsuits and other legal actions are an existential threat to businesses. Here’s how to protect yours.

Every health club member has a story. What you don’t want is that story to be told through a lawyer.

Unfortunately, that’s the world we live in. Today’s headlines are full of people who claimed to have been injured in some way due to a health club’s negligence. For instance, a woman in New York sued a gym for $1 million after an exercise band slid off her foot and hit her in the face, partially blinding her. Another member sued a club for “an exploding exercise ball.” In another New York State club, a jury returned a verdict against a personal trainer for the sum of $1.4 million(!) for using an inappropriate training regimen for a client who had been injured.

You get the picture. Whether injuries are the result of user error, actual negligence, or even if they’re bogus claims, the process is the same. The suit is filed, and the club has to defend itself.

Legal Worried Man Column

Exposure to legal liability and other lawsuits is not a lot of fun to talk about, but every health club needs to be protected. While most club operators are aware of the obvious—slip and fall, treadmill stumbles, dropped weights—a number of other issues can expose you. For instance, are you covered for…

  • Employee lawsuits, such as sexual harassment?
  • Contract issues (fitness chains have been sued millions for legal actions against contracts)?
  • Gift certificates? Yes, you can be sued if you don’t follow your state’s laws regarding gift certificates. Ask Soul Cycle.
  • Pool safety? If you have aquatic fitness at your club and children are present, you may need lifeguard services depending on your state’s laws.

You see a pattern developing. The judicial system can determine the steps you need to take to avoid legal retribution. It takes more than common sense and general insurance coverage to avoid problems. Health clubs have more risks than most businesses.

Questions to Ask Before You Seek Coverage

Just like regulations and laws differ from state to state, requirements for coverage depend on the type of club you have. You need to have “best business” practices set up for your specific situation.

IHRSA is a great resource for the basics regarding legal issues. You can find legal briefing papers and articles that cover a range of important issues common to almost every club, including employment law and harassment. Locker rooms, in particular, offer a host of privacy and security issues. But unexpected situations can develop, depending on your club. Consider these areas of interest:

  • Loss control. Are you insured for loss control? A business needs to have parameters set for risk management.
  • Check-in procedures. You need to have a specific protocol for controlling who enters and leaves your club or you could be liable for actions taken by an invader.
  • Key cards. If you have a club that has 24-hour access with key cards, you need to have coverage reflecting that.
  • Environmental noise. Yes, clubs have been sued by neighbors for being too disruptive with noise and vibrations. If your club is in a building or strip mall with other businesses, you may have liabilities you didn’t realize you had.
  • Video camera security. If you have video cameras as a security advice, you need to be aware of how the video data is stored. Some systems delete footage and start over every week. If you have video security, make sure it’s going to help you if an incident occurs that may have been erased.
  • Kid’s programs or daycare. If you have children in active programs or simply have daycare programs, you need to know how to keep them safe. IHRSA has some suggestions on how to avoid problems with children present.
  • Special services (massage, spa, steam room, pools, etc.). We mentioned lifeguards above, but you also have to be covered for ancillary services where people are using extreme heat or being touched by a staffer.
  • Credit card payments. Do you have auto-draft? Are you covered for how payments are processed?
  • Employee law. Besides the obvious types of employment-related suits, which vary widely from state-to-state, you need to have a hiring system that accounts for criminal background checks and other issues.
  • Personal trainers. As mentioned earlier, you can be at risk for a range of conduct, whether the trainers are in your employ or not. You need to know what coverage you need if they’re on staff or independent contractors.

It’s a lot to think about—and it’s not fun. You don’t get into the health club industry to spend your day with an underwriter. But a successful business depends on being covered. One lawsuit can destroy everything that you’ve built.

Legal Insurance Graphic Column

The Specialized World of Fitness Insurance

In the 1969 comedy mockumentary “Take the Money and Run,” the main character, a bank robber, is “severely punished” in prison by being locked in a sweatbox with an insurance salesman.

That, of course, is an exaggeration. But nobody enjoys seeking out an insurance company, especially for a specialized business like health clubs. It’s not just the cost, it’s knowing that you’ve got professionals who know where you need to spend your money and won’t sell you coverage you don’t need.

You may want to place your first call to K&K Insurance. K&K has been in the insurance business for 65 years, but here’s the number that means everything to a health club owner: 25 years. That’s how long K&K has been working with gyms, personal trainers, athletic groups, and other recreation-related entities.

They are, simply put, experts in the health club market. Based in Fort Wayne, Indiana, K&K covers the U.S. and Canada, and understands how local jurisdictions can affect your exposure. Because they cover everything from martial arts dojos to cheer camps, they’ll see it coming before it happens.

They cover everything from acrobatic/partner yoga to Zumba. They understand the challenges of covering liability connected to personal trainers, locker rooms, and other unique features of fitness facilities. They cover small studios as well as large chains, and will create a loss control program that works for your situation.

Face it: You need coverage for the unexpected. You never know when that exercise ball is going to explode.

Learn more about K&K Insurance and their products for health clubs.

Author avatar

Jim Schmaltz

Jim Schmaltz is Editor-in-Chief of Club Business International.