The Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal recently analyzed a case involving claims against the franchisor of a gym where the plaintiff suffered injuries in an accident involving a fitness machine. The franchisor had filed a summary judgment motion, and the court here examined whether the plaintiff had met his burden of establishing a genuine issue of material fact regarding the franchisor’s liability. The court mainly focused on whether the franchisor had custody and control over the operations of the gym, and ultimately the defective workout machine.
Plaintiff Thomas Nearhood was working out at an Anytime Fitness location when he was injured in an accident involving a Precor-brand Smith machine. Mr. Nearhood alleged that while performing squat exercises on the machine, the weighted bar fell on him and caused “serious internal injuries.” Mr. Nearhood sued Anytime Fitness, Inc., the franchisor of the gym; Fitness Partners of Pineville, LLC, the franchisee of that particular location; and Precor, Inc., the manufacturer of the Smith Machine.
Mr. Nearhood claimed that Fitness Partners negligently failed to instruct him in the proper use of the Smith machine. He also claimed the machine was defective because it did not have adequate warnings, and a safer alternative design existed. Finally, he claimed Anytime Fitness was liable because it allowed its franchisee to possess this dangerous instrumentality.
Fitness Partners and Precor filed motions for summary judgment, and the trial court granted the motions. They were affirmed on appeal. Anytime Fitness filed a motion for summary judgment on the grounds that since they were the franchisor, they were not involved in the daily operations of the franchise location. Mr. Nearhood asserted that they controlled various aspects of the franchisee. The trial court granted Anytime Fitness’ motion, and Mr. Nearhood appealed.
The appellate court stated that a summary judgment motion should be granted if there is no genuine issue as to the material facts of the case, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
If the moving party does not bear the burden of proof at trial, on the motion for summary judgment, they need only point out to the court there is an absence of factual support for one or more elements of the claim.
Regarding the interplay of discovery and summary judgment, the court stated the rule that summary judgment is not to be delayed pending discovery, unless the party opposing the summary judgment shows a probable injustice.
In this case, the record showed that some discovery had been completed as of the date of the hearing on Fitness Partners’ motion for summary judgment. Mr. Nearhood’s deposition and inspection of the Smith machine had occurred. The court had also made clear to Mr. Nearhood that if he contended adequate discovery had not been conducted, the appropriate method to bring that to the court’s attention was to file a motion to reset the court date. Mr. Nearhood did not file this motion or continue the hearing on the motion for summary judgment.
The court held that adequate discovery had been conducted and that the trial court did not abuse its discretion. Regarding Mr. Nearhood’s claims that Anytime Fitness was liable because they should have ensured their franchisee took steps to protect customers, the court stated that Mr. Nearhood was required to prove the elements of his claim. This required showing that the defendant had custody or control of the thing that caused the harm, it had a defect presenting an unreasonable risk of harm, the defendant knew or should have known of the defect, the damage was preventable through reasonable care, and the defendant failed to use reasonable care.
The issue here was whether Mr. Nearhood had established that Anytime Fitness had control of the defective premises. Courts look at whether the party bears a relationship giving the right of direction and control and whether the party derives a benefit from the thing.
Anytime Fitness alleged that while it required Fitness Partners to purchase equipment from a designated vendor list, it did not specify the type of equipment they must purchase, nor did it have control over the daily operations of Fitness Partners’ franchise location. They submitted an affidavit of the Vice-President of Operations in which she stated that Anytime Fitness did not have the right to control the day-to-day operations.
Anytime Fitness also submitted a copy of the franchise agreement and specifically pointed out the provisions noting that Fitness Partners was to be responsible for the day-day operation of the Center. The affidavit also stated that other than providing franchisees access to vendor lists on an internet dashboard, Anytime Fitness did not mandate or control the type of fitness equipment purchased by the franchisees.
The appellate court held that Anytime Fitness had established it did not have day-to-day control over the franchisee’s management procedures, and it did not require franchisees to purchase the specific machine at issue in this lawsuit. The burden of proof shifted to Mr. Nearhood to produce facts showing he could satisfy his evidentiary burden of proof at trial. He had not submitted any evidence sufficient to show that Anytime Fitness had control over the day-to-day procedures of the franchise.
Since Mr. Nearhood did not meet his burden of proof under Louisiana law, the court of appeal held summary judgment in favor of Anytime Fitness was appropriate. The court affirmed the granting of the motion for summary judgment filed by Anytime Fitness.
At Lavis Law, our skilled personal injury attorneys help injured Louisiana residents seek compensation following an accident. Our office provides a free, confidential consultation and can be reached by calling 866.558.9151.
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