Liability risks exist for fitness coaches, and while you may not be able to eliminate all risk, there are things you can do to limit your risk for liability as a fitness coach. This is true whether you are an employee, a contractor or work independently of gym facility. Although you may work for a gym that carries a liability insurance policy, there are situations and circumstances where the gym’s liability insurance does not cover you, as the individual trainer.
While there are a range of liability risks that apply generally to fitness coaches and professional fitness trainers and coaches, risk can vary depending on your situation, the specific location(s) where you work, the kind of clients you work with, and your expertise. Liability doesn’t only exist when coaching or training in person. As technology has evolved, training clients at a distance has become another way for fitness coaches to diversify their clientele. To some, it seems like it must be lower risk because you are not physically monitoring the activities of your client, so how can you be held liable? In fact, the less exposure and contact you have with your clients, the more potential for risks to arise, and thus liability. Bottom line: do you really want to find out when you’re facing a law suit?
There are a few types of disclaimers and policies fitness coaches should consider including in the business materials, including on their website. Our post about disclaimers for fitness coaches has specific information that you may find helpful. Waivers are common practice in the fitness industry but they aren’t all written equally nor are they all effective and shield you from all liability. Some states—such as Louisiana, Montana, New Mexico and Virginia—have held waivers to be against public policy in fitness settings. If you work with a client in one of those states, any waiver will be unenforceable. Moreover, the specific requirements regarding the language and/or content of waivers vary from state to state. Be sure to make sure you have the waivers and contracts you use reviewed by an attorney.
But what are the Liability risks for fitness coaches? What risks are you taking that you don’t even realize? And how do you limit the risk of liability as a fitness coach?
Here are some of the risks that you may need to consider as you develop policies, disclaimers and documentation, along with deciding on insurance coverage your business may need, as well as some questions to consider when seeking to find ways to limit risk.
Injury to client while under your supervision: are you adequately trained and certified for the activity involved? is pre-program screening and testing adequate? Did the client signed an informed consent, release and assumption of the risk consent form; and are your instructions and advice within acceptable ranges based on the client’s physical condition and circumstances. One illness that has raised liability risk is rhabdomyolysis. Other examples may include clients with physical limitations as a result of prior injuries or illness being injured in a new way, failure to show a client how to use a new piece of equipment resulting in injury. In addition to ensuring that your screening process and intake documentation are good, ensuring that you have a practice of educating your clients about how to avoid injury and learning to gauge how their body is responding to training. If find liable, you could be responsible to pay damages for the injury, lost earnings, and damage to personal property among other compensation.
You give advice that your client follows, which results in injury, or illness – this is especially the case where it is about a medical condition or medication or any situation where you go outside your areas of training and expertise. One of the key concerns in these situations is the unauthorized practice of medicine or other licensed healthcare disciplines. Unless you’re well-trained and certified, this can give rise to liability. As a best practice: If you aren’t a doctor, be careful giving medical advice or advising in relation to medication or medical testing. If you aren’t a registered dietitian, be careful recommending, supplying or prescribing nutritional supplements.
Liability risks can arise when you make claims about your expertise, qualifications, and the extent of your skills. Who are you claiming to be? What are you claiming to know? What is your expertise?
Professional Relationships can give rise to liability risk. Do you want to be setting up a professional relationship with everyone who reads your website? Your policies and disclaimers should address the type and extent of any professional relationship clients (or even readers of your website) are entering into with you.
Defamation or Slander. Defamation is the communication of a false statement that harms the reputation of an individual, business, or product. You may be legally obligated to pay compensation to others that result from your personal injury offense to someone other than your client.
Damage to the personal property of others – this includes breaking or damaging equipment or damaging the fabric of the premises where you are coaching. Insurance may be available to compensate others in the case that you cause damages, however you will also want to limit your liability in relation to the behaviour of your clients by ensuring that there is a disclaimer in your user (or training agreement) contract with them, that they are responsible for the payment of any compensation related to damages they cause.
Promise of results from fitness coaching. Are you sharing client stories or experiences in a way that implies that they represent or guarantee that current or future clients will achieve the same or similar results? To do so within a disclaimer will likely increase your risk of liability if a client fails to achieve the same or similar results. Can you back up your sales claims? Is that even a good idea?
Using photographs of past or current clients in advertising materials. If you use the results of clients in your advertising materials, a client release is essential! You do not have the right to use the image of a client to advertise the results your company has achieved or in a way that implies they endorse your services without an appropriate release. Be mindful particularly that the risk of liability increases where you are using a Before image that presents a client in a less than flattering light.
Privacy (including HIPAA) breaches can give rise to liability. There are also statutory requirements that require you as a fitness coach to protect the personal information (especially health) of your clients. In addition to ensuring that you have good policies and procedures in place to protect client data and information, regularly reviewing whether you are complying with those policies and procedures is a good business practice. Another policy that may assist with mitigating liability in this area is a document retention and destruction policy (make sure that this covers electronic documents if you store information in this way). Some aspects you may want to consider for additional professional liability insurance coverage include: assault upon you, First Aid, Medical Payments, Deposition Fees, Sexual Misconduct Expense, Loss of Earnings, HIPAA Proceedings and Administrative Hearing Expenses.
Allegations of negligent acts, errors or omissions resulting from your work as a fitness coach. This includes mere allegations (that may be false or frivolous) as well as errors you may have made as well as omissions (things that you failed to do or say). Malpractice Insurance or Errors and Omissions coverage may be worth exploring to assist, but so is making sure that your policies, procedures and forms carry their weight in protecting your legal interests and in mitigation of risk. Insurance coverage may be helpful to assist with the amount you are legally obligated to pay to compensate others for damages and the cost of legal defense.
Websites can give rise to all of the risks above and more. With a website, you may open yourself up to additional liability risk. When posting a website, consider including these disclaimers.
Risks may arise from interstate commerce. Unless your goal is to solicit out-of-state business, it may also be prudent to make it clear that the content of your website is directed only at those who could potentially patronize your local place of business. If a toll-free number is provided, specify that it is strictly for the convenience of local patrons or clients, not a means of soliciting interstate commerce. Any ambiguity could subject you to litigation in another state.
 Springer, BL & Clarkson PM “Two cases of exertional rhabdomyolysis precipitated by personal trainers.” Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2003 Sep;35(9):1499-502. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12972868; Last Retrieved 2 December 2016.
 The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (42 United States Code § 1320d); While HIPAA has not been construed as applying to gyms and fitness facilities, or to personal trainers, massage therapists, nutritionists and other nonmedical wellness professionals, the definition of health care under the regulations is quite broad—including “preventive [care],” “rehabilitative [care]” and “maintenance” and “assessment” of “the physical or mental condition, or functional status of an individual that affects the structure or function of the body.” But the regulations and overall context indicate that “covered entities” are the more traditional providers of healthcare: doctors, hospitals, dentists, podiatrists, pharmacists, laboratories, optometrists and the like.