A federal judge said Lifetime Fitness can’t avoid a lawsuit from a man who claims he fell in a dark bathroom in which motion-sensing lights didn’t function as expected, causing him not to see liquid on the floor when he stepped out of a bathroom stall.
Plaintiff Mark Watson was at the Warrenville Lifetime Fitness between 3:30 and 4:15 a.m. on July 20, 2015. When he entered the second-floor bathroom near the end of his workout, the lights were on. But during the 10 to 20 minutes he says he was in the stall, the lights went off. After exiting the stall, he allegedly slipped on a liquid, fell and hit his head on a wall; the lights did not come back on until he stood up and walked toward the exit, according to court documents.
Watson, who said the fall gave him a concussion while also injuring his neck, left leg, back and foot, filed his complaint in Cook County Circuit Court, alleging negligence and premises liability. The case was removed to federal court since Lifetime is based on Minnesota. Lifetime moved for a summary judgment, which Magistrate Judge Susan E. Cox denied in an opinion filed Dec. 20.
According to case documents, a Lifetime facilities engineer said the lights in the bathroom where Watson fell were programmed to turn off after 15 minutes of inactivity. Lifetime also pointed to its membership user agreement, which contains a section on assumption of risk as well as a liability waiver, and said Exculpatory Clauses bar Watson’s claims because the alleged negligence was insignificant.
Michael Silverman Horwitz Horwitz & Associates
Cox said the issue boils down to whether Watson should’ve “known about the specific danger that caused his injury,” and explained that although Exculpatory Clauses are written broadly, courts are “required to construe them narrowly and against the defendant.”
With regard to the specific bathroom, Cox noted the way the motion sensor is installed means “any person alone in the toilet stall for more than 15 minutes would be forced to find their way out of the bathroom in the dark. … it is not the type of danger that would be reasonably foreseeable to an individual signing up for a gym membership. It is certainly not referenced in ‘clear, explicit, and unequivocal language’ ” of membership documents.
Cox said the best possible reading in favor of Lifetime would be to say a bathroom light switch could fall under “the catch-all phrase, ‘any other facilities or equipment,’ but relying on such a nebulous catch-all is antithetical” to putting users on notice of specific risks through explicit language.
In reviewing cases Lifetime relied on for its argument, Cox drew distinctions because they involved slips and falls in a shower room by a swimming pool of one club and the steam room of another. Had Watson simply said he fell in the bathroom, she explained, “these cases might carry the day.” But the “crucial distinguishing factor” is Watson’s allegation of “a motion sensor light that had been negligently placed and set to an unreasonably short time setting before its automatic shut-off function was triggered.”
The cases Watson cited involved liability waivers that didn’t protect fitness clubs, such as a mirror falling off a wall or a roof leak.
With the motion for summary judgment denied, Cox set a status hearing for Jan. 8 to set a pretrial schedule.
Watson is represented in the case by attorneys Michael A. Silverman and Michael T. Wierzbicki Jr., of Horwitz, Horwitz & Associates, of Chicago.
Lifetime is represented by Brian P. Shaughnessy, Jared A. Schneider and Maritza Rodriguez, of the firm of Cremer, Spina, Shaughnessy, Jansen & Siegert LLC, of Chicago.