Fitness instructors, squats and waivers

The Supreme Court of the Australian Capital Territory has awarded damages of $255,261 to a student who injured himself while studying to be a fitness instructor at the Canberra Institute of Technology (CIT).

The facts

The student was enrolled at the CIT, studying to become a fitness instructor. He was participating in a class where the students had to perform exercise activities that were set by a fellow student, with the approval of the class supervisor. The students were required to perform ‘jumping squats’, which involved crouching down so that the knees were bent beyond where the thighs were parallel to the ground (which is called a deep knee bend), and from this position jumping up off the floor. The exercise was performed repeatedly for 30 seconds.

After five or six jumps, the student felt a pain in his left knee, which he described as a ‘crunching, flicking type of feeling’, but he continued and finished the exercises. The pain persisted, and a few days later he notified the CIT of the injury and completed an incident report form. He also showed the class supervisor that the prescribed textbook warned against performing deep knee bends, as they carried a real risk of injury. The supervisor said that he did not think the exercise he had performed in class was potentially harmful.

The decision

The student sued the CIT, arguing that it had been negligent, through its employee, in allowing the student to perform an unsafe exercise. Alternatively, if the exercise was not in itself unsafe, the CIT was negligent by failing to provide proper supervision to ensure that the exercise was being correctly performed.

The CIT denied liability. Upon enrolment, the student had signed a waiver acknowledging that the course would involve vigorous exercise and that he accepted the risks associated with this. The waiver also stipulated that the CIT and its staff would not be liable to the student for personal injury arising from activities performed in the course. Chief Justice Higgins stated that given the context and the parties’ unequal bargaining power, the waiver should be interpreted contra proferentem. With this in mind, His Honour held that the waiver was ‘no more than a warning that strenuous activity was involved in the course’, and thus would not enable the CIT to escape liability for injuries suffered by students who were performing activities it knew or ought to have known were dangerous.

The CIT’s second argument was that by performing the jumping squats, the student had voluntarily assumed the risk of injury and so was responsible for the injury. Chief Justice Higgins also rejected this argument. Unlike the students, the CIT instructors were aware of whether or not the jumping squats were safe, and whether they were being performed properly by the students. This meant that the instructors had a duty to ensure that ‘any exercise to be prescribed by another student for, inter alia, the plaintiff was not attended by undue risk or executed in an unsafe manner’. His Honour accepted that repeated deep knee bends were unsafe, and in permitting or prescribing them as an activity the CIT was liable.

His Honour awarded a total of $255,261 in damages, which included the costs of future knee replacement surgery, loss of past and future earnings, and $125,000 in general damages.

Implications

The Supreme Court’s decision is relevant to all fitness instructors and businesses that run exercise classes.

It is a reminder that when choosing exercise activities, fitness instructors must ensure that the activities are safe for the participants. They are also required to supervise the participants as they perform the activities, to ensure they are done safely and correctly.

Finally, the decision demonstrates the ineffectiveness of waivers signed by participants in protecting a fitness instructor from liability if the exercise activity being performed is known or ought to be known by the instructor to be dangerous.

CASE Geoffrey James Walker v Canberra Institute of Technology [2013] ACTSC 193 (12 September 2013)

If you have any questions or need advice on a similar circumstance, please do not hesitate to contact Nevena Brown or Rob Minc.

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