An Exculpatory Clause Isn’t Always Enforceable in a Personal Injury Lawsuit

By Scott M. Russ, Esq.

In Walters v. YMCA, the New Jersey Appellate Division reversed a trial court’s dismissal of a personal injury lawsuit premised upon a contractual waiver of liability.  Applying the seminal case of Stelluti v. Casapenn Enters, Inc., 203 N.J. 286 (2010) the trial court had granted the defendant’s Summary Judgment Motion based upon an exculpatory clause in the plaintiff’s membership agreement, signed as a condition of utilizing the defendant’s facility.  2014 N.J. Super LEXIS 117 (App. Div. August 11, 2014)

On appeal, the plaintiff, who was injured as a result of slipping on stairs leading to the pool, had argued that trial court’s enforcement of the exculpatory clause was erroneous in light of his allegations that the stairs were negligently maintained and as such, the ordinary common law duty of care, owed to all business invitees, had been breached.  In other words, the underlying accident was unrelated to any inherent risk associated with a health club activity and as such, the exculpatory clause should not apply to the underlying facts.  The Appellate Division agreed.

In reversing the trial court, the Appellate Division distinguished Stelluti, supra, finding the enforcement of an exculpatory clause applicable only in circumstances where the injury at issue was foreseeable as an integral part of the nature of a health club.  According to the Court, since the Stelluti decision did not address whether a health club could otherwise use an exculpatory clause protect itself from the ordinary common law duty of care, as present in the Walters case, its reasoning therefore could not be used to exonerate the defendant, YMCA in the case at hand.

Walters, supra represents a “chipping away” of the broad protections otherwise afforded New Jersey health clubs and other recreational facilities by use of exculpatory clauses.  It remains to be seen if Defendant YMCA will seek certiorari and if so, if the New Jersey Supreme Court will take the opportunity to clarify and/or limit its reasoning in Stelluti, supra.