Michigan Appeals Court Reverses Ruling for Defendant Gym Following Rock Climbing Injury

In April 2014, plaintiff David Alvarez plummeted from a rock climbing wall at LifeTime Fitness Center in Novi, Michigan. Alvarez had taken his family to the center. Neither his wife nor daughter had climbed before, and everyone signed a waiver releasing Lifetime from liability for negligence. Alvarez fell from the climbing wall because his harness was on backwards and was hooked incorrectly to the belay system. Shortly thereafter, he filed suit in Oakland County Circuit Court.Alvarez suffered numerous injuries to his legs and back during the fall. In the lawsuit, he argued that the LifeTime employee was “grossly negligent” in failing to determine whether Alvarez had correctly fastened his harness and belay system before instructing Alvarez to climb. Once he had reached the top of the wall, Alvarez asked the employee how to get down and was told: “just let go.” After letting go, the harness failed and Alvarez fell to the ground, seriously injuring himself.

The Oakland County Circuit granted Lifetime’s motion for summary judgment, reasoning that Alvarez didn’t introduce any evidence to establish that LifeTime and LifeTime’s employee were grossly negligent in failing to take sufficient precautions to ensure Alvarez’s safety.

These types of lawsuits aren’t uncommon. Last year, the parents of a boy who was seriously injured after falling from a rock climbing wall at a Florida YMCA sued the organization for similar reasons. Specifically, they argued that the employee failed to secure the harness on the child and there were no safety mats to dampen the impact. And this summer, the State of Iowa agreed to pay a former University of Iowa student $75,000 after he fell roughly 40 feet from the school’s rock climbing wall in 2012, crushing two vertebrae. The June 2014 lawsuit accused the university of negligence for failing to properly supervise the apparatus, test equipment, and train climbers. The State Appeal Board approved the settlement with the student, who in exchange agreed to drop his case against the university.

In Alvarez’s case, the appeals court disagreed with the lower court. The appellate judges remanded the case to the Circuit Court to proceed to trial because deposition testimony suggested the employee was grossly negligent. Specifically, depositions from the Alvarez family indicated that the employee was facing Alvarez when he clearly tied the harness backwards. According to the court’s opinion, the employee’s failure to explicitly instruct Alvarez how to properly fasten the harness, coupled with the employee’s disregard for the red warning sign that the harness was on backwards before giving him the green light to start climbing, could convince a rational juror that the employee did not care about Alvarez’s safety or welfare.

As rational minds could reach different conclusions regarding whether the employee was grossly negligent, the appeals court reasoned, the trial court erroneously granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment. A pretrial hearing is scheduled for early January in Judge Hala Jarbou‘s courtroom.

The personal injury attorneys at the Neumann Law Group represent injured people throughout Michigan from offices in Traverse City and Grand Rapids. Call us at (231) 463-0122 or at (616) 717-5666 for a free consultation.

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