Protect your club against lawsuits

When you think about it, health clubs may be filled with accidents waiting to happen. But considering the types of activities that go on at health clubs, "there are surprisingly few lawsuits filed against them," says Michael Sklar, a partner at Rudnick & Wolfe, in Chicago.

Still how do you protect yourself in the event you ever find yourself at the receiving end of one? Should you hire a lawyer this minute to go through your club and help you shield yourself against any and all possibilities? After all, lawyers can be expensive.

The good news is that if you want to hire a lawyer, go ahead, but it's not a necessity. "There is no need to hire a lawyer before you need one," says Larry Paulick, president of ConTech Associates, Inc., a consulting engineering firm, in College Park, Md. "A lawyer is like any other specialist. He has his areas of expertise, and a general counsel will give you just that-general business and legal advice."

Whether you need to hire a lawyer for general advice depends upon your facility-and even your comfort level. But regardless of what you ultimately decide, take these steps to minimize your vulnerability in the event a lawsuit is ever brought against your facility.

* Have written procedures on all safety issues. "Employees should be aware of these procedures and should review them periodically," says Paulick. The procedures should cover such issues as the responsibilities of certain people in a crisis, how to handle accident reports and how to interact with your insurance company. "Think logically about what you would want to do for an injured party, and what you would want someone to do for you," advises Paulick. "If you want, you may have your lawyer or counsel review these procedures."

* Designate one staff person as safety manager. This individual is responsible for seeing that safety procedures are reviewed and followed. This is also the person to whom staff members or clients should report any incident, notes Paulick. "He or she will also serve as spokesperson for the facility in the event there is an incident and the media have questions," he adds.

* Consider hiring an expert in risk assessment to do an audit of your facility. "Lawyers can't know everything," says Paulick. "Generally they have experience in litigation so they know what is important and what is not." On the other hand, someone who specializes in health-club safety issues can do a walk-through of your facility and immediately zero in on critical areas.

"Someone who has been through this before can almost rattle off a litany of items you should be looking for," says Paulick. For example, a risk specialist will be able to tell you where you need signage (outside a sauna, for example), how large the lettering should be, and what the sign should say.

* Give a tour and get signatures. Paulick believes a walk-through with new members is an effective way to warn them of potential danger areas while protecting yourself. During the walk-through, the staff member doing the tour should explain any risks and point out warning signs. A case in point: "Only use the sauna for 15 minutes. The reason you don't want to stay in here longer is because you could become dizzy or pass out and we won't have anybody checking on you."

When the member returns to the office, take a basic medical history, asking questions such as: Do you have a heart condition? Are you pregnant? Are you taking any medications? Have you seen a physician recently? Has he given you permission to do particular activities? "After you go through this checklist," says Paulick, "your staff member should write down that he conducted a walk-through and explained certain risks and then he should have the customer sign a document which states essentially, 'The information I have provided is true.'"

"You don't want to assume the role of an M.D. or EMS technician, but you want the customer to know that there are certain considerations he or she should be aware of," says Paulick.

* Check into waivers. Sklar notes that many states recognize a club's right to have its members waive their right to file a claim for personal injury. If you're not sure if your state does, consult a lawyer.

* Have a lawyer check out your advertising. This is especially crucial if you are running an aggressive campaign. According to Sklar, if you promise to deliver certain memberships-such as cheap ones-and you don't, you could become the target of an investigation by your state's attorney general or consumer protection agency.

* Know what your insurance policy limits and what is and isn't covered. "Most people don't read their insurance policy," says Paulick. "Policies are written in language which makes it difficult to understand. You should read your policy and understand it and what you don't understand you should highlight and ask your salesman or broker to explain it to you in detail. You're paying for it, and if you don't know what you have, shame on you."

If you have a special area in your facility that needs attention, your insurance agent or broker should be able to explain this and cover it either in the general policy or in a rider. And, adds Paulick, if you change your facility or add new equipment, such as a pool, make sure your policy covers that, so go back to your agent or broker.

Certainly you can hire an independent counsel to explain to you in layman's language what your policy says. Or if you find yourself in a lawsuit that your insurance company is handling-and you're convinced the company shouldn't settle-hire a defense lawyer to give you an assessment. "Generally they're not that expensive," says Paulick. "They will tell you if you have a good case or whether you should go with your insurance company's decision."

* Don't let the cost deter you if you feel a lawyer is necessary. "Seek out the specialist when you need one," says Paulick. "You wouldn't go to a general practitioner for brain surgery. When you need a specialist to protect yourself and give yourself a sense of satisfaction that you have done what is appropriate for your business and customer and staff, it's a reasonable and worthwhile expenditure."