Updated: Apr 25, 2020
It appears gyms will be among the first businesses to open in coming days and weeks, at least in Georgia and other states and cities that follow White House guidelines for reopening parts of the nation. This news likely is welcomed by some runners who rely on gyms for cross-training or who prefer gym treadmills, particularly during the upcoming summer months.
As they reopen, gyms are likely to take extra precautions such as providing means for social distancing and performing deep cleaning. Still, the health effects of going to the gym are, at best, unclear. The question arises: Can I sue my gym if I get sick from COVID-19?
To answer the question, the first place to turn is a gym member's written agreement. The gym contract undoubtedly has language that tries to shield the gym, its owners, and its employees from from a broad range of liability ranging from equipment malfunctions to medical emergencies.
Not surprisingly, the language is heavily tilted toward the gyms and their owners. Members might not have even read the language when they signed up for the gym. But usually that does not matter. Typically, courts enforce "exculpatory" language in gym contracts as long as the member could have read the language. Only rarely is not reading the fine print a valid legal defense.
There are exceptions and "exculpatory" language is not always enforced. Typically, no commercial entity, a gym or otherwise, can shield itself from conduct that borders on the criminal. Nor can gyms ignore known risks that are particularly hazardous.
Whether the sometimes-deadly strain of coronavirus fits that definition is unclear. However, should there be a lawsuit over a virus-related injury at a gym, the gym will have strong legal defenses in its favor.
Among the arguments is that gym members knew the risks or should have known the risks. It is a good argument, since news coverage of the health emergency is virtually constant. It would be difficult for a runner who uses a gym to plead ignorance about the potential health risks.
Even so, look for gyms to take additional steps to protect their members but also themselves, likely in the form of additional written warnings that inform us of risks, known and unknown, associated with heading to the gym during a pandemic.
And even without the protective language, a runner who sues a gym on the theory the facility caused illness faces an uphill battle in court. In that situation, the gym member and runner becomes the plaintiff and needs to prove the gym was the causal factor, and potentially the primary causal factor.
Linking illnesses such as viruses to particular causes is speculative and might be close to impossible.
(Photo credit: Tony Hall, Creative Commons)