All Pain, No Gain? Pryce v. Town Sports Int’l, LLC
By Jacqueline Borrelli, Kacie Kergides, and Dylan Henry, of Montgomery McCracken
(The following is one of thousands of recent stories from the archives of Sports Litigation Alert, a subscription-based publication.)
On June 28, 2018, Simone Pryce and her husband sued New York Sports Club (NYSC) (an exercise gym) and its owners for negligence. This suit originates from a shoulder injury Mrs. Pryce suffered on July 2, 2015, at NYSC while performing an exercise when left unsupervised by her personal trainer.
Mrs. Pryce worked for a publishing company that provided a discount for an NYSC facility, which she capitalized on by joining the gym. The gym’s membership agreement, which Mrs. Pryce signed, discussed certain risks associated with any gym equipment and detailed that the facility cannot guarantee that the use of equipment is entirely void of accidents. As she began frequenting the gym, Mrs. Pryce signed up for twelve personal training sessions with NYSC’s certified trainer of six years, Jonathan Reyes.
During Mrs. Pryce’s final personal training session, Mr. Reyes demonstrated and instructed her to perform an ab exercise using a medicine ball. When she began replicating the exercise, Mr. Reyes observed her for a moment and then walked twelve feet away to talk to another member at the gym. During his conversation, Mr. Reyes had his back turned away from Mrs. Pryce. As Mrs. Pryce continued performing the ab exercise, she felt a pull in her shoulder, immediately put the medicine ball down, and waited for Mr. Reyes to return to her. When he returned, he decided to end the training session.
As Mrs. Pryce continued with the rest of her day, her pain slowly became worse and did not subside for over a week, causing her to visit her primary care doctor and then an orthopedist. Her orthopedist performed an MRI and found a bicep tear requiring surgery. After the surgery, Mrs. Pryce began physical therapy and underwent some time where she struggled to perform daily tasks due to her inability to use her right hand.
Following surgery, Mrs. Pryce gained fifty pounds from her inability to exercise and had to take insulin for the first time in six years for her diabetes. Her right hand became swollen, and a hand specialist prescribed her nerve medication that ultimately did not work. She then underwent three procedures to alleviate the nerve pain in her hand. She missed ten weeks of work, did not receive twenty percent of her income, suffered a decrease in her annual bonus, and incurred about $6,000 in medical expenses. Although her hand felt better, issues in her shoulder remained, prohibiting her from participating in her normal hobbies.
Battle of the Experts
During the bench trial in February 2021, both sides called experts to testify. The Pryces’ expert, an orthopedic surgeon, testified that it was “more likely than not” that performing the ab exercise caused Mrs. Pryce’s initial injury. On the other hand, NYSC’s expert, an orthopedic surgeon with a subspecialty in sports medicine, testified that it was not an isolated incident (e.g., the ab exercise) that caused the injury, but rather it was the “wear and tear” of aging that was the substantial factor causing the injury. NYSC further retained an expert in neurology who performed a neurological evaluation on Mrs. Pryce. He ultimately found that although she had some minor restrictions in range of motion of activity in her right arm, her motor activity was not atypical. The Court found both parties’ experts credible, but it ultimately found that the evidence at trial better supported NYSC’s expert testimony.
In New York, for a plaintiff to prevail on a negligence claim, the plaintiff must show that: (1) the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care; (2) the duty was breached; and (3) that breach proximately caused the plaintiff’s injuries.
Focusing on the first element, whether NYSC or Mr. Reyes owed Mrs. Pryce a duty of care, NYSC argued that Mrs. Pryce assumed the risk of injury when she voluntarily exercised at the gym. The assumption of risk doctrine helps measure a defendant’s duty of care and is not an absolute defense. In New York, the doctrine states that anyone who voluntarily participates “in a sporting or recreational activity consents to those commonly appreciated risks which are inherent in and arise out of the nature of the sport generally and flow from such participation.” Notably, the doctrine does not protect from concealed or unreasonable risks.
Though both sides presented previous decisions that weighed in their favor at trial, the Court ultimately held that the assumption of risk doctrine barred Mrs. Pryce’s negligence action. It reasoned that she understood the risk, the exercise was not inherently dangerous, she failed to prove precisely how she was injured, there was no evidence of improper form, and it could not be determined if Mr. Reyes could have prevented the injury if he had been next to her for the duration of the exercise.
In its holding, the Court left some wiggle room for potential future plaintiffs in similar situations. Had Mrs. Pryce presented evidence that Mr. Reyes allowed her to perform the exercise with bad form or gave her the improper weighted medicine ball, then the outcome of this case may have been different. Moreover, the same could be said if she could prove that her injury could have been prevented if he remained nearby while she did the exercise.
It appears as though it is hard to protect yourself from injuries that may occur at the gym. As demonstrated from this case, if a potential plaintiff truly believes one specific exercise caused an injury, the potential plaintiff must have evidence to back up his or her claim. Otherwise, gyms and their owners should be able to successfully rely on the assumption of the risk doctrine to protect their interests.