Liability and Damages for Fitness-Based Lawsuits

Understanding the categories of legal damages awarded to plaintiffs.

By Sean Riley, JD, MS
May 31, 2006

Over the past several issues, we have examined the risks involved in failing to prioritize legal responsibilities in your fitness career and discussed how to actively manage those risks in your daily operations. Now it is time to take the next step and learn about the different categories of legal damages you might have to pay should you be liable for another’s injuries. Although this material can be highly technical, a general understanding of it is indispensable to anyone training clients in today’s highly litigious society.

Most lawsuits brought against fitness professionals involve negligence. While damages are the focus of this particular column, remember that, in any negligence case, the following four elements must be satisfied:

  • a legal duty
  • a breach of that duty
  • causation
  • damages (Champion 2000)

Compensatory Damages

First and foremost, damages are required in order for there to be a legitimate case alleging negligence. More specifically, actual injury is required. Unlike in intentional torts, no nominal damages can be awarded in a negligence case (American Law Institute 1979; §907, comment a). Three types of compensatory damages that are commonly awarded are nominal damages, hedonistic damages and future damages.

Nominal Damages

Nominal damages are symbolic, low-dollar awards imposed simply to teach people a lesson. A nominal award is, in essence, a warning to act differently next time you are in a similar situation. The award is not imposed as a means of remedying, penalizing or compensating someone for some physical, emotional or economic loss.

In a negligence case, the harm suffered must be physical in nature. Mental anguish alone is insufficient. To qualify, there must be definite physical symptoms. However, once physical harm is established, other types of harm may be compensated for as part of the same lawsuit (Glannon 2000). Examples of other types of harm include economic losses, such as medical expenses and lost wages, as well as mental distresses, such as shock, anxiety and humiliation. (This is understandable, since a physically active person who rips a muscle during a workout will likely suffer from both mental and economic distress.) That means that if you are found liable for negligence, you run the risk of having to pay a large sum of money to compensate for physical, economic and mental harm. Typical components of any personal-injury case are medical bills, lost wages and mental suffering.

Hedonistic Damages

Another type of compensation you may fail to anticipate is an award for hedonistic damages. These damages compensate for the loss of one’s ability to enjoy life (Glannon 2000). For example, if a client rips a hamstring muscle during training, then that person’s ability to perform physically, whether professionally or recreationally, is hindered—and quality of life, as previously experienced, is changed. Hedonistic damages are used to compensate for that change.

Future Damages

Recovery (or compensation) is also available for future damages. Your clients can recover for both past damages and damages that can be reasonably expected to occur in the future (American Law Institute 1979; §10). Future damages include pain and suffering, mental distress, lost wages and future medical expenses.

When a court is determining this type of damage, only an approximation of the amount of future loss is required (Glannon 2000). However, in order to prove such damages and justify an award for future loss, medical expert testimony will usually be required to show that the injury suffered by the client will be long lasting or permanent.

The Collateral Source Rule

It is quite common for injured clients to be reimbursed for their injuries by a third party, usually their own insurance company (i.e., under a health insurance policy). But any such reimbursement will not affect the size of the award granted to the client in a successful lawsuit (American Law Institute 1979; §920A). The doctrine governing this is known as the collateral source rule (Glannon 2000). The various sources of third-party reimbursements include employment benefits (e.g., workers’ compensation), insurance, social security disability, welfare, charity and even financial help from family and friends. In fact, the reasonable value of those services generously provided by a client’s family or friends can also be recovered in the damages awarded by the court.

The rationale that allows for these reimbursements is that most insurance plans require that their clients reimburse the insurance company after getting the official damage award from the court (Glannon 2000). Hence, there would be no double recovery for the client.

Note that the client is responsible for having taken any reasonable actions necessary to have avoided injury; furthermore, the client cannot recover for any harm that could have been avoided if adequate medical care had been sought in a timely manner. That means that if a client refuses to seek medical attention, then any

aggravation of the injury due to the delay will go uncompensated. The goal is to compensate the client for injuries caused by someone else’s negligence, not injuries caused by the client’s negligence.

Punitive Damages

One severe form of recovery is punitive damages. Punitive damages are awarded to penalize the defendant (meaning you), in order to deter future offenses. For punitive damages to be awarded, a trainer’s conduct must be extreme and/or deliberate. More specifically, in a negligence case, conduct must be reckless, willful or wanton in order to justify the punitive damages award.

Here’s a warning for all fitness professionals: Most
liability insurance
policies do not cover punitive damages (Glannon 2000). Should you be involved in a suit that requires you to pay punitive damages, and your policy contains no exclusions regarding such damages, be aware that your premiums are likely to skyrocket or your coverage could be canceled. Unfortunately, it is not possible to buy a supplemental rider to your existing
insurance policy
to guard against the potential for punitive damages.

Wrongful Death Statutes

One final matter related to damages is any situation in which a trainer’s negligence results in a client’s death. This is particularly timely considering the vast number of nutritional dietary supplements currently being hyped and promoted in fitness environments. Consider the following hypothetical scenario: A woman dies owing to the use of an over-the-counter ephedrine supplement, which was recommended to her by her personal fitness trainer. Since this client is now dead, she cannot sue. So, does the trainer get off free as a bird? Absolutely not! The decedent’s heirs can file the negligence suit against the trainer and/or the health club where the trainer practices. In fact, this very scenario was recently litigated and settled in the case of Capati v. Crunch Fitness International (296 A.D.2d 181 [N.Y. 2002]), in which the deceased plaintiff was represented by the administrator of her estate.

Most states have wrongful-death statutes that allow certain groups of people to recover for the loss sustained by
the death of a loved one (Prosser, Wade
& Schwartz 2000). The classes of persons allowed to collect under these statutes are usually the decedent’s spouse, children or parents (Prosser, Wade & Schwartz 2000). (Ordinarily, stepchildren and live-in companions are not permitted to collect under the statutes.) The court will make the determination as to exactly what financial loss each eligible family member experienced from the decedent’s death.

What is particularly interesting is how that financial loss is defined. Traditionally, financial losses have included economic support (e.g., mortgage payments) or household services (e.g., cooking, cleaning and gardening) (Prosser, Wade & Schwartz 2000). More recently, loss of companionship, loss of consortium and moral guidance have also been determined to be recoverable (Prosser, Wade & Schwartz 2000).

Damages for Breach-of-Contract Lawsuits

The concepts associated with damages in contract law are quite complex compared to the concepts that arise in negligence/tort law. Under contract law, compensatory damages are further subdivided into three categories:

  • expectation
  • reliance
  • restitution

Often, if a client is unable to sue via negligence, a separate lawsuit can be filed alleging breach of contract. A breach of contract occurs when one party fails to live up to his or her end of the bargain. If a person is found liable for a breach of contract, the court will mandate that the breaching party (i.e., you, the trainer) pay the nonbreaching party (i.e., your client) compensatory damages.

What you will have to pay will be money or otherwise related monetary value owed under the contract. The primary purpose of compensatory damages is to place the client in the same economic position that he or she would have been had the contract not been breached (Connaughton & Eickhoff-Shemek 2003). This form of compensation is collectively known as expectation damages (Emanuel 1999).

Compensation has the additional purpose of ensuring that the client’s financial position remain as good as it was before the contract was made (Emanuel 1999). Any costs incurred as a result of the contract (and its litigation) are awarded. This subset of compensation is known as reliance damages.

Finally, compensation is designed to prevent unjust enrichment should you breach your contract with a client. For any benefit you receive under a contract, an equal amount is paid to your client (Emanuel 1999). This subset of compensation is collectively known as restitution damages. The concept behind this is that the breaching party should not be permitted to benefit or experience a windfall from unlawful or bad-faith conduct.

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Sean Riley, JD, MS

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