Case study: College fitness center weight machine injury
Ebuzoeme v. City University of New York
Court of Claims of the City of New York, December 6, 2005
[Note: opinion of the court has been edited and citations omitted.]
In this case, Claimant Joshua Ebuzoeme alleged Defendant City University of New York (CUNY) was negligent in the operation, ownership, maintenance and control of weightlifting equipment in the York College fitness center.
Ebuzoeme enrolled as a student at York College in the fall of 1998 and was an enrolled student on July 18, 2001, the date of the alleged accident. Ebuzoeme's status as a student permitted him to use the facilities, including the gymnasium and weight room. Ebuzoeme testified that he used the facilities approximately three to four times a week from the time of his enrollment in 1998.
Ebuzoeme testified that on the date of the accident he entered the facility by presenting his identification to the security guard at the main entrance, walked down the hallway to the weight room, and began working out. Ebuzoeme further testified that no one was present inside the weight room to assist him in using the equipment and that he failed to sign the "sign-in" sheet because he did not have a pen available at the time.
Ebuzoeme began his workout by warming up on the rowing machine for approximately two to three minutes before switching to the weightlifting equipment. Ebuzoeme then continued his workout routine by using the Cybex Smith press machine.
The Cybex machine is a weightlifting machine which operates as a bench press and requires weights to be added before use. Ebuzoeme testified that he had to adjust the weights on the machine by mounting the weights on each side of the bar as he had done in the past. Ebuzoeme could not recall the exact amount of the weight he added to the Cybex machine on the subject date. He further stated that he does not know the weight by poundage but adjusted the weights according to size as he had done on previous occasions.
Ebuzoeme testified that he had not received any formal training or instructions on the use of the Cybex machine and had learned to use the machine by watching others. On the date of the alleged accident, Ebuzoeme did not procure a spotter as suggested by the instruction signs posted on the machine. Ebuzoeme testified that after finishing a sequence of lifting, he lifted the weights up to engage them in a locking position and the weights rapidly fell, hitting Ebuzoeme in the head.
Ebuzoeme did not recall whether anyone witnessed the alleged incident, nor did he report the accident to York College personnel.
On cross-examination, Ebuzoeme clarified that he had previously used the Cybex machine on several occasions as part of his weightlifting routine. Ebuzoeme described himself as being 5' 5" tall and weighing 170 pounds. Although Ebuzoeme could not estimate the amount of weight he was lifting on the day of the alleged accident, he testified that the maximum weight he lifted prior to that date was 180 pounds. Ebuzoeme stated that he was unaware of any instructions or signs posted on the Cybex machine because he had not noticed them prior to the alleged incident.
Ebuzoeme testified that prior to the weights falling, he heard a "clicking" or "locking" sound. Ebuzoeme stated that based on his previous experience with the machine, this noise meant that the weights would be held safely in place by the machine's locking mechanism.
Ebuzoeme acknowledged that he failed to file an incident report or notify York College because he thought the alleged accident was minor. On redirect examination, Ebuzoeme denied having knowledge that he was required to submit an incident report or notify the College because no one had ever instructed him to do so.
Rec Aide testimony
Ebuzoeme introduced the deposition testimony of Flaubert St. Hilaire, the recreational aide who was on duty at the time of Ebuzoeme's alleged injury. St. Hilaire was employed as a recreational aide for York College for approximately one year prior to the date of Ebuzoeme's alleged accident. St. Hilaire acknowledged that he had received no formal training as a recreational aide but learned of his duties through written manuals and by shadowing and observing other recreational aides. St. Hilaire testified that his duties included logging in facility patrons, completing daily safety inspections of the weightlifting and fitness equipment, filing incident reports and, if necessary, reporting accidents to management.
St. Hilaire stated that he would visually inspect the machines daily or upon the request of a patron. If a machine was not working properly he would post an "out of order" sign on it. St. Hilaire also testified that there are posted instructions on the Cybex machine, but that upon request, he would assist patrons in the use of the equipment. St. Hilaire stated that he received training on how to properly use the Cybex machine from a coworker shortly after the installation of the machine in the facility. St. Hilaire further acknowledged that he was not required to fill out accident reports and that he was not familiar with Ebuzoeme or the instant Claim.
CUNY also called Flaubert St. Hilaire to testify. St. Hilaire testified that he was on duty in his capacity as a recreational aide from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. on July 18, 2001. St. Hilaire's duties included maintaining the equipment in the fitness center and assisting staff, faculty, students and alumni in the use of the equipment during recreation hours. St. Hilaire acknowledged his signature on the daily activity log and stated that the purpose behind the log is for staff, faculty, students and alumni to sign in when using the facility. St. Hilaire further testified that no one reported being hurt in the weight room at York College on July 18, 2001.
On cross-examination, St. Hilaire maintained that while he was on duty, "no one gained entrance into the weight room without signing in." St. Hilaire acknowledged that although he was stationed at a desk for the duration of his shift, he left his post on numerous occasions in order to check the equipment in the fitness center. St. Hilaire further testified that he could not recall anyone using the Cybex machine on July 18, 2001.
Facilities Director testimony
Ebuzoeme called Ronald St. John to testify. At the time of the injury, Ronald St. John was the assistant athletic director/director of facilities and operations for health and physical education at York College.
St. John testified that the weightlifting equipment, including the Cybex machine, is periodically inspected by a lab technician and inspected daily by a recreational aide who monitors the facility. St. John stated that the only time a machine requires service is when there are reports of malfunction. St. John testified that the Cybex machine was never repaired prior to July 18, 2001 because there had been no complaints of malfunction with respect to the machine or its locking mechanism. St. John further testified that there were no reports of Ebuzoeme's injuries or any incidents regarding the Cybex machine on July 18, 2001.
CUNY called Ronald St. John to testify. St. John testified that the Cybex machine does not necessarily need a spotter because the machine is equipped with safety bumpers which hold the weights in place and assist a party using the machine. St. John testified that the College specifically bought the Cybex machine because of the presence of bumpers as an extra safety precaution.
St. John further testified that the York College facility is only open under the supervision of a recreational aide. A party using the facility is required to sign in at the recreational aide's desk before using the facility. St. John stated that the duty of a recreational aide is to man the fitness facility. The aide's duties also include ensuring that all parties sign in, are wearing proper attire, and use the fitness equipment properly. The recreational aide is available to answer any questions and assist a party in the use of the equipment. St. John also acknowledged that the Cybex machine was installed in the fitness center of York College approximately six to eight months before the alleged incident and that there had been no complaints concerning the machine prior to Ebuzoeme's alleged accident.
On cross-examination, St. John again acknowledged the importance of a party adjusting the "bumpers" or bar stops on the machine before use. The purpose of the "bumpers" is to ensure that the weights do not fall if a party fails to properly lock the weight bar in place.
St. John further stated that there are three signs posted on and near the machine regarding the use of bumpers as safety precautions; one sign being posted by the manufacturer, and the other two having been posted by York College. While St. John acknowledged that the manufacturer's instructions call for a spotter when using the machine, he testified that the bumpers can be used to replace the need for a spotter. St. John testified that a party is not required to take a course before using the weight equipment, but can become familiar with a particular machine by reading the instructions or asking a recreational aide for assistance.
St. John again emphasized that the presence of a recreational aide in the facility is to visually monitor the equipment to ensure that it is properly functioning. A recreational aide who becomes aware of a problem with a particular machine is required to record it in the daily activity log, and in the event that the aide observes a party having difficulty or improperly using the machine, the aide is required to intervene and assist.
Expert witness testimony
Alvin Epstein, a New York City school system physical education teacher for over 25 years, testified on behalf of Ebuzoeme. Epstein testified that weightlifting equipment and machines require supervision because of the high degree of danger associated with their use. Epstein further testified that in his opinion York College violated a "national standard" because they failed to provide supervision over the weightlifting equipment in an effort to prevent accidents or injuries from occurring.
On cross-examination, Epstein acknowledged that before using a weightlifting machine, a person is obligated to read the instructions and become familiar with the proper use of the machine. Epstein further acknowledged that there are clearly marked instructions posted on the Cybex machine which explain its use, including a sign that specifically recommends the use of a spotter as a safety precaution.
CUNY's first witness was Steve Bernheim, the president of Sports and Recreation, Inc., a sports and recreation consulting firm which specializes in risk analysis of sports programs and facilities for New York State municipalities. Bernheim testified that according to his examination of the depositions in the instant Claim, the Cybex machine was in fairly new condition on July 18, 2001. Bernheim further testified that in his opinion the York College weight room is a safe facility because of the presence of instructional signs and safety guidelines posted throughout the facility and the availability of assistance from a recreational aide whose desk is located approximately 12 feet from the entrance to the weightlifting area. Bernheim stated that in his professional opinion Ebuzoeme's failure to procure the machine into a locking position would have resulted in the weights falling.
On cross-examination, Bernheim testified that the depositions in the instant Claim stated that a recreational aide was available in the facility on July 18, 2001 in the event that a party needed assistance with the weightlifting equipment; however, he could not testify as to whether the recreational aide was present at his post for the duration of his shift. Bernheim further testified that in his opinion a spotter might have been able to determine whether the Cybex machine was in the locked position; however, the spotter might not have been able to prevent the weights from falling because of the reclined position of Ebuzoeme and the spacing of the machine.
As the owner of the building and grounds herein, CUNY has a duty to act as a reasonable person in maintaining its premises in a reasonably safe condition. In connection with its operation of a gymnasium, it must use the same level of care to assure that its equipment is reasonably safe and free from hazards.
CUNY is not, however, an insurer, and negligence may not be inferred solely from the happening of an accident. Rather, Ebuzoeme must prove that the CUNY breached a duty of care owed to Ebuzoeme and that the breach of duty proximately caused Ebuzoeme's injury.
In premises liability cases alleging an injury caused by a defective condition, the plaintiff must show that the landowner either created the defective condition, or had actual or constructive notice of the defective condition for such a period of time that, in the exercise of reasonable care, it should have corrected it.
The determinative issue concerns our application of the doctrine of assumption of risk. Such doctrine dictates, in general terms, that voluntary participants in sports activities may be held to have consented, by their participation, to those injury-causing events which are known, apparent, or reasonably foreseeable consequences of their participation. So long as a defendant fulfills "a duty to exercise reasonable care, to protect participants from unassumed, concealed or unreasonably increased risks, its application is justified "when the consenting participant is aware of the risk, has appreciation of the nature of the risks and voluntarily assumes the risk."
Notably, awareness of risk is not to be determined in a vacuum. It is, rather, to be assessed against the background of the skill and experience of the particular plaintiff.
By engaging in a sport or recreational activity, a participant 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. However, participants are not deemed to consent to concealed or unreasonably increased risks. Application of the doctrine of assumption of the risk is assessed against the skill and background of the particular participant.
Even if Ebuzoeme could establish that the Cybex machine was defective, which the Court finds it was not, Ebuzoeme has failed to show that the CUNY had actual or constructive notice of a defective condition, giving him reasonable opportunity to repair it. Furthermore, Ebuzoeme has also failed to establish that the CUNY had a duty to provide a "spotter" or supervise Ebuzoeme's weightlifting activity. The Court does not credit the testimony of Ebuzoeme's expert witness because he failed to specify what national standard was violated in regards to CUNY's alleged failure to provide supervision or a "spotter." Moreover, the alleged lack of supervision did not create a dangerous condition over and above the usual dangers that are inherent in the participation of sporting activities.
Finally, instructions and safety guidelines were visibly posted on and near the Cybex machine, including a sign that clearly stated a spotter or "safety bumpers" must be used during operation of the machine. It is undisputed that Ebuzoeme had previously used the machine on numerous occasions so that he was familiar with its operation. Ebuzoeme's failure to abide by the clearly posted instructions or seek assistance before using the weightlifting equipment contributed to his injury. Assuming arguendo [i.e., merely for the sake of argument] that a recreational aide was available to assist, the Court accepts CUNY's expert testimony that the accident was not preventable, even with a spotter present, because of the mechanics of the accident as described by Ebuzoeme.
Based upon the foregoing analysis, the Court finds that Ebuzoeme failed to establish by a preponderance of the credible evidence either the existence of an unreasonably dangerous condition or lack of reasonable care. Accordingly, the Claim is hereby dismissed.
Dr. James C. Kozlowski is an Associate Professor in the School of Recreation, Health, and Tourism at George Mason University. He is a licensed attorney who has written and lectured extensively on the legal and legislative aspects of parks and recreation administration in general and the issue of recreational injury liability in particular.
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