Richard Eng v. 24 Hour Fitness

Weinberg & Garber were co-counsel in this California case against 24 Hour Fitness which, along with Bally's, is one of the biggest health club chains in the United States. The basic claim is that 24 Hour Fitness failed to have an automated external defibrillator (“AED”) on the premises so as to effectively respond to member suffering cardiac arrest, and failed altogether to perform any CPR, in which its employees were trained and which would have forestalled brain damage.

The suit alleged that, beginning in the late 1990s, the company resisted any suggestion or requirement that AEDs be placed in its clubs, despite its knowledge that 20 to 40 of its members were dying of cardiac arrest each year.

Mr. Eng was a member of a 24 Hour Fitness club in the San Francisco area. For lack of prompt response to his cardiac arrest in June, 2003, he is severely brain damaged and requires around-the-clock medical care. Weinberg & Garber worked with the San Francisco law firm Minami Tamaki in representing Mr. Eng and his family.

The suit further alleged that, if the ability to prevent these catastrophic outcomes weren't enough, 24 Hour Fitness had every reason to acquire AEDs long before Mr. Eng's arrest:

• It knew that exercise increased the risk of cardiac arrest by a multiple of 20, and that by 1999 other health clubs, including other large chains, routinely used AEDs to save member lives;

• It knew that all applicable published standards which it professed to embrace — those of the American Heart Association, American College of Sports Medicine, YMCA, etc. — had recommended AEDs in health clubs as early as 1986 and no later than March 2002;

• It claims to have recognized a duty to take “all reasonable steps” to protect member safety, to stay abreast of industry developments and timely respond to medical emergencies, duties it never even pretended to meet;

• It knew AEDs were required by law in similar environments like schools and airplanes and that by 2001 federal and California legislation had been enacted to promote AED use through Good Samaritan immunitities and similar laws;

• It says it budgeted the money for AEDs in all clubs in 2003, based on the clear industry trend toward AEDs, but did not begin to deploy and use AEDs in its clubs until the Fall of 2005.

Discovery in the case showed that 24 Hour Fitness successfully evaded responsibility for its indifference to preventable customer death through a general emphasis on low costs and liability avoidance:

• The duty of the Defendant's risk managers — who were responsible for member safety — was to “protect the assets of the company;”

• The Defendant requires broad releases and maintains elaborate policies for ensuring that all members sign one (this case is unusual for 24 Hour Fitness because it is undisputed that Mr. Eng never signed one).

• 24 Hour Fitness actually refused an offer, as part of an American Heart Association program, of free AEDs and training in 2001 at its northwest clubs. The admitted reason: it might have been a basis to argue that all of its clubs should be similarly equipped.

• 24 Hour Fitness requiring CPR training of employees, which it touts in its marketing, but does not “require” that employees so trained actually use CPR to help a stricken member. 24 Hour Fitness' founder and long-time President admitted that this policy was designed to avoid potential liability under the California Good Samaritan statute, which does not apply to assistance given as part of an employee's duties.

Plaintiffs contended that 24 Hour Fitness' handling of member safety, which it called risk management, amounted to a preference for saving money rather than lives. By failing to adopt AEDs in its clubs by 1999 or 2000, 24 Hour Fitness knowingly elected not to save about 20 to 40 member lives per year. By failing to have AEDs by June, 2003, and by permitting its trained employees to skip CPR, 24 Hour Fitness caused Plaintiff Eng's severe and irreversible brain damage.

This case was resolved shortly before trial in April, 2006.

In the fall of 2005, 24 Hour Fitness installed AEDs throughout its company. At least one life has already been saved.