The Estate Of Marc Palotay et al v. Studio City Fitness Gym: Analysis and Premises Liability Law

Michael GrossmanNovember 04, 2016 6 minutes

Not every state law makes a great deal of sense. Some laws are left over from drastically-different periods in history, and others are clearly issued in response to specific situations the legislature didn't think it would ever have to address. For example, in my home state of Texas vendors are forbidden from selling any liquor on Sundays--a statute carried over from days of greater religious influence on secular law. Elsewhere, the state of Alaska has forbidden the act of giving beer to a moose, whether standing or seated. As for my favorite example, in North Carolina it is statutorily forbidden to steal used kitchen grease.

Grease, moose, and my liver aside, most state legislature is rooted in good sense. Laws are passed proactively or reactively with respect to recognized issues, and while not every state passes the same laws, each can be counted on to take measures to promote the health and safety of its constituents.

Today's specific point: Since 2007, California's Health and Safety Code (HSC) has included specific regulations that require at least one automatic external defibrillator (AED) be available on the premises of any operating "health studio." Per the terms of HSC § 104113:

"...'health studio' means a facility permitting the use of its facilities and equipment or access to its facilities and equipment, to individuals or groups for physical exercise, body building, reducing, figure development, fitness training, or any other similar purpose, on a membership basis."

In essence, gyms and similar facilities are required by law to have defibrillators on-premises in the event that a member suffers a serious cardiac event. At least one member of their staff is also required to be trained in the operation of the device.

As with many laws, someone decided to break the California statute--to dire effect.

The Estate Of Marc Palotay et al v. Studio City Fitness Gym: The Basics

In the early half of 2015, the family of 65-year-old Hollywood executive Marc Palotay filed suit against Studio City Fitness gym, a facility in Los Angeles' Studio City neighborhood. The family sought damages for the gym's failure to have a legally-required defibrillator on-site when Palotay suffered cardiac arrest in one of their facilities.

Because of their inability to perform defibrillation, Palotay did not receive appropriate attention until emergency personnel arrived at the gym. His heart attack, called "initially minor" by the plaintiffs' attorney, became fatal when no one was able to treat it promptly. Plaintiffs allege that the gym did not invest in the mandatory equipment or training as a cost-cutting measure.

The gym defended itself, alleging that:

  • There actually WAS an AED on the premises on the day of Palotay's attack (though they were not forthcoming about why it was not used),
  • The executive was working with a third-party trainer not directly employed by the gym, upon whom the burden of assistance should rest, and
  • By signing a contract with Studio City Fitness, Palotay had agreed to waive the gym's liability for adverse events.

Despite these defenses, the facility recently filed a notice of settlement with the Los Angeles Superior Court. Its terms were not disclosed, but Palotay's family was compensated for his tragic passing.

Premises Liability at the Gym

"Health studios," like any business that delivers goods or services to the consuming public, are required to maintain careful safety standards for the well-being of their patrons. Should they fail to take reasonable (in this case legally mandated) precautions and a gym-goer is then injured on a treadmill, in a sauna, or elsewhere on the property, the owners of the establishment could owe financial compensation to the victim. Because Palotay suffered fatal injury, the duty is owed to his family and estate, but the idea remains functionally the same. Action or inaction by representatives of the facility--owners, trainers, front-desk staff, managers, or maintenance workers--that results in injury to a guest, be it intentional or accidental, could make the gym liable for damages.

If Studio City Fitness was telling the truth (and that is what we assume unless it is proven otherwise, since we are all entitled to due process), the waters are slightly muddied by the idea that the trainer was not directly employed by the gym. However, central to the suit is the gym's failure to provide appropriate emergency response to someone suffering medical trauma inside the facility. The third-party trainer may not have been prepared to defibrillate Marc Palotay, but someone on the premises was supposed to be, and those same premises were supposed to be stocked with the equipment to do so. Trained staff with appropriate life-saving gear would hopefully not have stood by and watched a man have a heart attack simply because they weren't helping him on the squat rack moments before. As a matter of fact, the same health code statutes guarantee that if the intervention is not successful and the victim passes away, an employee who attempted to help cannot be held liable for failing to save the victim's life. From that point of view there's really no downside to at least trying.

Depending on a case's circumstances, it can be difficult to establish that a facility is legally responsible for injuries that occurred on the premises. However, gyms and certain other businesses are held to higher standards of care based on how they operate. In premises liability law, gym-goers belong to a class known as invitees. An invitee is "implicitly or expressly brought into or onto premises by the possessor for the sake of transaction within the scope of the invitation." Many businesses with SALE or LIMITED TIME OFFER signs in the windows are functionally "inviting" visitors to engage in business. Groups that advertise their goods or services via the media (gyms are relentless advertisers) are engaging in invitation as well, and a signed contract between the gym and the invitee suggests that transaction occurs, meaning the property owner has a duty to actively seek out and remedy dangerous conditions for the safety of gym-goers, be they new members or veteran workout enthusiasts.

A personal injury attorney must be able to prove that the property owner was negligent in some manner. For a gym, this requires proving the facility breached a duty owed to an injured client, and that this resulted in demonstrable damages. Given the particulars of Palotay, it is not unreasonable to see a breach of statutory obligation and negligence in not having an AED and trained staff available to treat the victim, which directly contributed to the fatality of his heart attack.

There's a Reason Gyms Have Liability Waivers.

While I don't have anything against the enterprise of personal wellness, it can't be denied that there are a lot of ways to get hurt at a gym. The place is full of heavy objects, powered devices with moving parts, and slippery surfaces. More than that, a rank amateur heading straight for the weight benches may mistakenly put on too much and end up with a 200-pound bowtie (tip: always have a spotter). Muscles get pulled, fingers and toes pinched or crushed, and yes, hearts are sometimes attacked. Gyms are conscious of these potential threats, and while they do what they can to prevent them, they also require new members to sign a liability waiver with the initial paperwork.

A carefully-worded and signed liability waiver can be an effective legal shield in the event of injury. It can even preempt a claim, because a member's signature on the document generally implies informed consent, meaning that the plaintiff chose to proceed knowing the risks. Assumption of risk is often one of the defenses often employed by gyms when people are injured on the premises.

Waivers theoretically indemnify the defendant against injury or wrongful death claims. A good contracts attorney can make a waiver that will effectively prevent most potential claims, but in the end it is still only a paper shield. Many such documents are too general in their language, do not properly inform the client of all assumed risks, or are administered in violation of state law. Effective waivers must be unambiguous, detailed about foreseen hazards, and must be signed by the member before they can be considered valid.

An understood condition in any of these waivers is that the facility in question is safe. If the place is poorly kept or the equipment is old and unsafe from the get-go, a waiver will likely not be worth the paper it's printed on. Moreover, because Palotay suffered a condition for which the gym was unprepared despite their legal obligation to be, it's very unlikely that any waiver on file would have been effective. The document would only have nullified certain duties the gym owed the patron, not any owed to the state as part of the terms of its operation.

Gyms Are Not The Only Businesses with Obligations.

Texas may not have specific laws involving defibrillators at the gym, but premises liability as a concept is addressed in the laws of all fifty states. It is important for consumers--invitees or otherwise--to have avenues to pursue compensation if they're hurt at the site of a business.

I'm of course not implying that injury is guaranteed if you set foot outside your door. Hotels, restaurants and bars, grocery stores, shopping malls...generally speaking, these locations are dedicated to preventing patron injury, for the sake of sparing themselves litigation if nothing else. Mishaps can and do occur, though; a wet floor might not be promptly mopped, for instance, or a wobbly garment rack could topple over on someone browsing through clothes. Accidents happen, and an important element of premises liability is determining whether the owners and operators of the location could reasonably have prevented them. If investigation finds they were foreseeable, an argument can be made that the proprietors of the establishment should have exercised better care.

I am glad to know that Mr. Palotay's family will receive some kind of justice for their loss. A settlement is in many ways small recompense for losing a loved one, but things being what they are it is important to balance the scales however possible. I hope this case will serve as a relevant lesson to all property owners to do everything they can to ensure the safety of their members and patrons.