Enforceable Exculpatory Clause in Contract Results in Summary Judgment for Defendant
In McNearney v. LTF Club Operations Company, Inc., the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Eastern District recently affirmed a trial court ruling granting summary judgment in favor of the Defendant fitness club from claims by the Plaintiff that it was negligent and reckless in allowing her to become injured while participating in a boot camp exercise class. Customers enrolling in the exercise class were required to sign a contract that included a usage agreement, which shielded the Defendant from any future liability for the member’s usage of the facilities. The appellate court found that the clause was unambiguous and applied it in granting the Defendant summary judgment on the Plaintiff’s claims.
The Court of Appeals, citing the Missouri Supreme Court decision in Alack v. Vic Tanny Int’l of Missouri, Inc., 923 S.W.2d 330, 334 (Mo banc 1996), held that exculpatory clauses which release an individual or an entity from his or her own future negligence, while disfavored, are not prohibited as against public policy. Such clauses are strictly construed against the party claiming the benefit of the contract, and clear and explicit language in the contract is required to absolve a person from liability. The Court held the following two clauses met that high standard:
- A clause titled (in large bold capital letters) “RELEASE OF LIABILITY”:
I waive any and all claims or actions that may rise against Life Time Fitness, Inc., its affiliates, subsidiaries, successors or assigns (collectively "Life Time Fitness") as well as each party's owners, directors, employees or volunteers as a result of such injury, loss, theft or damage to any such person, including, and without limitation, personal, bodily or mental injury, economic loss or any damage to me, my spouse, my children, or guests resulting from the negligence of Life Time Fitness or anyone using a Life Time Fitness Center. I agree to defend, indemnify and hold Life Time Fitness harmless against any claims arising out of the negligent or willful acts or omissions of me, any person that is a part of my membership, or any guest under this membership.
- The ensuing paragraph, stating in large bold capitals:
I HAVE READ AND AGREED TO THE TERMS AND CONDITIONS ABOVE, INCLUDING BUT NOT LIMITED TO, THE ASSUMPTION OF RISK AND RELEASE OF LIABILITY, AND I HAVE RECEIVED A COMPLETE COPY OF MY MEMBER USAGE AGREEMENT.
The Court found that this language was consistent with the requirements of Missouri law in that it was conspicuous and unambiguous and acted to bar McNearney’s negligence claim against the Defendant. The Court noted that the language releasing the Defendant specifically used the term “negligence” and was explicit in its wording.
Clubs and facilities with membership contracts doing business in Missouri should take care to include conspicuous and unambiguous usage agreements in those contracts to avoid future liability for a member’s usage of the facility.