Can you sue your personal trainer?
Posted in Georgia Supreme Court decisions on March 24, 2020
Dutt v. Mannar and Company, LLC. (A19A2130)
Court of Appeals of Georgia
Decided March 13, 2020
Does a personal trainer have a duty to call 911 if, after a training session the trainee complains of chest pains? Whether or not the Plaintiff showed that that duty existed was the question on review on this case.
A Rather Too “High-Intensity” Workout?
The facts are rather simple. On May 10, 2017 the Plaintiff had a free, one-hour high intensity training class at Defendant’s fitness center in Johns Creek, Georgia. Following the class, the Plaintiff felt chest pain, and told the trainer, asking him to phone 911. The trainer told the Plaintiff that the pain was simply due to muscle cramps and massaged his chest. The Plaintiff’s pain decreased, such that he no longer felt that a call to 911 was necessary, and he went home. However, once there, the pain returned. He took ibuprofen, tried an ice pack and a heating pad, but the pain persisted, and spread from his chest to his shoulder.
The Plaintiff drove to the hospital, where the Emergency Department staff diagnosed a heart attack and found a blocked artery.
The Plaintiff sued the fitness center, claiming that the trainer was negligent in failing to call 911. In response, the Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, claiming that the Plaintiff could not, under the facts as given, show that the Defendant had breached a duty because not such duty was shown. The trial court granted the motion.
Seeking a Duty When There Isn’t One
Negligence claims require showing four elements:
The essential elements of a negligence claim are the existence of a legal duty; breach of that duty; a causal connection between the defendant’s conduct and the plaintiff’s injury; and damages. Thus, the threshold issue in a negligence action is whether and to what extent the defendant owes a legal duty to the plaintiff. Sheaffer v. Marriott International, 349 Ga. App. 338, 340 (1) (2019) (emphasis added)
Here, the Plaintiff argues that the fitness center had a common law (or, case law) duty to call 911: he takes this approach because he was unable to point to a duty imposed by statute. Note that the level of clarity by which the duty is imposed makes it more or less easy or difficult to show that that duty exists. The clearest, strongest evidence of the existence of a duty is when it is imposed by law. (That said, the interaction between statutory and common law with regard to torts is complex. C.f., “Tort Law in the Age of Statutes,” Mark A. Geistfeld, https://ilr.law.uiowa.edu/assets/Uploads/ILR-99-3-Geistfeld.pdf.) In any case, here the Plaintiff was unable to provide even an example from common law to show that the duty at issue existed. It might be that no case with facts precisely, or even closely, aligned with the fitness center’s duty here. Alternatively, the Plaintiff’s attorney might not have looked closely enough — common law is vast, after all.
Finding a Case can Help… or Hurt
A 2014 Georgia Court of Appeals case (not cited in the decision summarized here) does match up (if not precisely), and the Court there came to the same conclusion as did the present one. In Goins v. FAMILY Y, 757 SE 2d 146 – Ga: Court of Appeals 2014, a 16-year old collapsed while working with a personal trainer on a treadmill at a YMCA. The 16-year old subsequently died. The Plaintiff there claimed that the YMCA “was negligent in the death of their son because he was under the “personal care” of a Y employee who had no CPR or first aid training.” The Trial Court granted the Defendant YMCA’s motion of summary judgment, and the Court of Appeals affirmed this, relying on “the long-established general rule […] that “[a] person is under no duty to rescue another from a situation of peril which the former has not caused,” even when the peril is foreseeable.” (Citing, as does the present case, Boller v. Robert W. Woodruff Arts Center, 311 Ga.App. 693, 693-694, 716 S.E.2d 713 (2011).)
In Goins the Plaintiff attempted to argue that a “special relationship” existed in this case which created a duty, but the Court found the facts wanting to show this. Again, the Plaintiff was unable to locate case law to show that a personal trainer has a special relationship with a trainee that creates a duty of care.
In the present case, no attempt was made to show that a “special relationship” existed, perhaps for the same reason. One wonders if Plaintiff’s attorney was aware of Goins, since its decision presages fairly directly the decision here.