It's a litigious society. We've all heard the saying. In a field like personal training where there is tremendous one-on-one interaction in both a physical and psychological manner, the opportunities for things to go wrong are staggering.
Who Needs Liability Insurance?
If you train clients, you should be investing in insurance, especially if you train independently, work out of clients' homes or are not employed by a facility with its own insurance coverage. The not-so-obvious need exists for the trainer that is the employee of a fitness facility, even one of the large national chains. When something goes horribly wrong, such as the death of a client, those bringing a lawsuit (the plaintiff) will go after anyone involved with the incident. While generally directed at the fitness facility, since they likely have the deepest pockets, if their coverage is not sufficient or the plaintiff is so determined, the trainer can be the target.
A well-publicized example occurred in 1999, when a client of a personal trainer at Crunch Fitness suffered a stroke while working out. The investigation discovered that the client had a medical history of high blood pressure and was taking prescription medication to control the condition. This information was volunteered during the evaluation and assessment process with the trainer. Still, the trainer recommended several supplements, including products that contained ephedra and yohimbe, both known to raise blood pressure. In this case, the trainer went so far as to take the client to a supplement store to purchase the products, since Crunch Fitness did not carry them. In the suit, the plaintiffs not only went after Crunch Fitness, but the trainer, the supplement store and the manufacturer of the ephedra product for a sum of $320 million. Eventually, the case was settled for an undisclosed sum.
Risks and Solutions
You're sufficiently scared. What are some of the possible risks that could expose a fitness professional to a lawsuit?
- Negligence — This includes poor supervision, improper recommendations based upon available data and poor condition of equipment or workout area.
- Sexual harassment/molestation — Training is often a hands-on activity done at times in private, isolated areas. It is not uncommon for romantic feelings to develop between client and trainer. If those feelings are not reciprocated or are discovered by another's spouse, the trainer can become a target to save face. My personal opinion: If you get involved with a client, you are playing with fire and are pretty darn foolish.
- Drug/nutrient interaction — As in the above cited case, there is a reason why it is suggested that trainers do not make supplement recommendations. If for some reason you do, you better make sure your higher-risk clients (those with medical conditions or on any drug) check with their physician prior to taking them. There is simply not enough data to know exactly how all drugs and supplements are going to react. Also, with inconsistency of one product to the next, what may be safe in one instance may be dangerous in another.
- Poorly designed or no liability waivers/release forms — A surprising number of lawsuits have been dismissed due to well-constructed and thoroughly worded release forms.
- Inadequate assessment — If you do not actively seek out the information you need to make informed, appropriate exercise prescriptions, then shame on you.
Now even I am scared! So what can you do to protect yourself and limit your exposure to potentially damaging situations?
- Retain a lawyer — even if it is for a couple of visits. Have a qualified lawyer in your area review your liability and release forms. State laws vary, and a standard release form may not work to the letter of the law in your locale. We often see lawyers as clients, and I like the barter system. Trade some training for legal services, if it is within your ability. Just don't injure your lawyer.
- Be well-informed and trained — Getting certified in personal training and basic CPR and AED care is simply the price of admission. Certification does not insulate you from legal action.
- Set up and use proper assessment, screening and testing protocols — PAR-Q is designed to clear someone for moderate exercise only by ACSM standards. Many trainers subject clients to workouts that significantly exceed this and are vigorous, by ACSM standards.
- Know your limits — Being a trainer does not make you a doctor. Know when a client is not appropriate for you to train and requires you to refer them out to a more qualified health care professional by employing the above recommendation of proper screening, assessment, etc. Have a network of professionals that you have met and interviewed that you can refer clients to. Look for those professionals that share a similar belief in diet and exercise. Also, these contacts can increase your learning tremendously.
- Make sure your training area and equipment are in good working order and clean — Eliminate any possibility of stupid accidents. Things that can roll will. Weights on the floor can be tripped over or toes stubbed upon. Toss frayed or cut tubing in the trash. Control the things you can control.
- Start and progress slowly — Let your client know from day one that you are not going to kill them. It takes time to "learn" a client and determine the most effective way to train them. Making someone sore takes no talent.
- Stress the importance of proper warm-up and cool-down — Dr. Anthony Abbott, FACSM, owner of Fitness Institute International, Inc. and a frequent expert witness in trainer lawsuits says that of the 40 or so cases he has dealt with, 26 deaths occurred. Of these deaths, many were attributed to cardiac arrest due to blood pooling, a problem often encountered with insufficient cool-down.
- Get insurance — For around $180 a year, you can be covered against unseen events that could potentially wipe you out.
Know Your Insurance
Not all insurance plans are similar. A discussion with Bob Kuchefski, an agent with Hoffmann Insurance Services, Inc., illuminated the two types of broad coverage: occurrence and claim. An occurrence policy covers any occurrence that takes place during the time the insured had the coverage, even if the claim is made years down the road. With a claims policy, the trainer is essentially covered while they have the policy, and that is it. So if a claim was made two years after the end of your coverage period for an event that took place during the coverage period, you are out of luck.
Mr. Kuchefski also pointed out that trainers should know what type of coverage the policy includes. Some may only cover the trainer in a professional gym setting, and anything outside of that is excluded. Dr. Abbott recalled a case where a trainer was running outside with his client, and the client was struck by a car. The trainer's insurance did not cover this environment.
Dr. Abbott brought up an instance where a client exceeded the weight recommendations of his trainer on a lift done on his own. Realizing he had no health insurance, he brought suit against the trainer. If training correctly can find you in a lawsuit, ensure you are not providing fodder for litigation.
Scott Pullen, MS, NASM-CPT, CES, graduated from Texas Tech University with a Human Nutrition and Dietetics degree and has a Masters in Rehab Sciences from California University of Pennsylvania. He specializes in post-rehab, corrective exercise and performance enhancement and athletic conditioning. Contact him at email@example.com.