by Ken Reinig
As a health club owner, if you haven’t heard these words from one of your members, chances are you will. If you stay in this business long enough, eventually you will need to confront the very real probability that one or more of your members will be injured at your club. Equipment cables fail, entrances become slippery after a rain or snow storm, exercise balls burst, and kids in your child care put their fingers into things they shouldn’t.
Whether you knew of a hazardous condition or not, you ultimately may be responsible for an injury to a member. You do the best you can to create a safe workout environment, but sometimes accidents happen, and the injury can ultimately be attributed to something the club could or should have done to prevent the injury. That is why you have liability insurance. However, more often than not, most injuries that occur at health clubs are the result of what we affectionately refer to as “member malfunction”. In other words, the incident is clearly (at least from our perspective) attributable to the member’s own stupidity or carelessness.
The problem with our legal system (and our society in general) is that there will always be certain individuals who have a hard time accepting responsibility for their own actions, these people are usually called politicians (jk). Seriously though, you probably already have seen or known of a member who was thrown from a treadmill or tripped over a step in your group exercise class. You may have witnessed a member lose control during a squat or have seen someone pass out from over exertion. Unfortunately, some of these members are going to look to the club for payment of their medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering regardless of who was at fault. We not only have to fight off the plaintiff attorneys who will gladly take any case involving a health club injury, but we also have to deal with the medical community that often encourages patients to seek reimbursement for their injury from the health club; again, regardless of fault.
So what do you do when a member comes to you with medical bills related to their “mishap” on the treadmill? The member may make mention that their doctor told them to give the bills to you and you would know what to do with them…or maybe they will mention that they spoke to an attorney and that “I really don’t want to sue the club but if you pay my bills, give me a few hundred dollars for the five days I was off work, I won’t pursue anything.” As club owners, you may find it hard to resist the temptation to take a small baseball bat and create a REAL injury or, at the very least, find it hard to refrain from using vocabulary more suited for a hunting trip with the boys. The member may even “offer” a solution. “Just give me, my wife and my cousin a free lifetime membership and I won’t hire an attorney.” Whatever their motives are, you are now in a position to respond to a request that you truthfully believe borders on extortion.
As business owners, we often find ourselves making unpleasant decisions about how we run our club. We pay contractors for shoddy workmanship, we swallow bad debt on membership contracts that we have every right to collect and occasionally, we make deals with these accountability deprived members. Every case and situation is different and I don’t suggest that you “settle” with the member every time they come to you with medical bills.
However, there are some things you can offer that may diffuse a potential law suit. You may want to tell the member; “We are sorry about your injury, but unless there was something wrong with the equipment or if there was something that the club did to cause the injury, we regretfully cannot pay for your medical bills. However, what we can do is provide you with a free personal training session or we can add three free months to your membership agreement.” Please keep in mind that many insurance policies have coverage for Medical Payments (usually up to $5,000) that is designed for situations exactly like this. Even when there is no negligence on the part of the club, the insurance company will pay for the injury anyway…up to a point.
This coverage is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that the club owner doesn’t have to deal with these frivolous issues and the insurance company takes over and pays the claim and expenses. The curse is that every time the insurance company makes a payment under Medical Payments, it goes against your loss claims experience. Trust me…these frivolous payments can add up quickly. If you have Medical Payments coverage, that coverage becomes primary…even if the injured member has their own health insurance plan and does NOT want to have the club pay for their mishap, the medical insurance company WILL subrogate against the club for the medical expense and the club will ultimately pay the bill. Wonderful!
By offering a service to the member that has little or no affect on your expenses (i.e., extend their membership a couple of months, or a free personal training session), you may be able to diffuse the situation and cause a potential claim to go away. The member may still pursue legal action but by trying to reasonably work something out with them, you will likely reduce the number of claims and at the same time build an even stronger rapport with your member.