Training for free?: Legal protections you need to have in place

Training for free?: Legal protections you need to have in place

You decided to do some personal training or fitness training for free. We’re not going to talk about why you might have decided this, or the pros and cons of training for free. Instead, we are going to dive into a discussion of the legal protections you need to have in place if you decide that training for free is something you want to do.

You might be asking, for example, something like this:

“I want to start a weekly boot camp. Can I do to do this without being liable for their injuries. I am not looking to have them do anything extreme but I understand anything can happen and I want to obviously look out for myself and not get sued.”

Or like this?

“I was wondering if I could train people for free and still have to have liability insurance, informed consent, and waivers to pass out to my “clients” even though I’m doing it for free?”

Or maybe you are just getting started, or you’re transitioning from another sport, like this?

“I’m not certified. Can I have them sign some type of waiver form, explaining I am not certified and I am not responsible for any injuries? Does anything change depending on whether it’s free or if they’re paying me? Does anything change if they make a “donation”?”

There’s a few important questions to address as we discuss the legal protections needed if you are training for free.

Does training for free change anything?

Do you need liability insurance if you aren’t getting paid?

Do you need to be certified even if you aren’t being paid?


Training for Free

Training for free may not decrease your legal exposure as much as might think. It might decrease any damages awarded as a consequence of a legal suit, but it may not prevent your legal liability. Training for free may mean fees for permits for public space use or renting spaces may be discounted or waived, and it might mean you have flexibility to change your schedule or cancel sessions without penalty. But, training for free may still give rise to other legal duties and responsibilities, and thus liability.

One of the key components of establishing whether there is an implied contract is consideration. Money is one form of consideration. But does training for free mean that you are in a business relationship with a “client” even if there isn’t a financial exchange? Well, it doesn’t mean you aren’t. Why is this important? Whether there is an implied contract will carry with it a duty of care. This duty of care, as it relates to personal training, may mean making sure that you are taking care of the “client” as you train them.

But here’s the kicker – even if there isn’t an implied contract you as an individual are responsible for not behaving in a negligent way. As a consequence, if your “clients” are injured due to your negligence you could be sued.

Legal claims from personal training clients can results from things like being improperly warmed up, equipment misuse or failure (whether accidental or foreseen) and insufficient or improper maintenance, slips and falls even if they were caused by another client or an unrelated person, or negligently or intentionally causing illness or injury. This can also include pre-existing conditions (illness or injury) that may either be known or unknown to the personal trainer. We have a list of liability risks for fitness professionals!

What is the extent of your liability if a client is injured while under your supervision (even if they are not paying you for that supervision)? If you are sued as a consequence of injury, your legal defense will likely depend on a number of issues, including: whether you are adequately trained and certified for the activity where the injury occurred; the extent and adequacy of any initial screening and functional mobility testing; whether or not the client signed an informed consent form, and/or a disclaimers and waivers (including liability release and assumption of risk) form. Finally, the courts will consider if your advice, as well as verbal and written instructions, were acceptable based on the client’s physical condition and circumstances.


Liability Insurance and Training for Free

We just talked about the extent of liability if you train for free. So what about Insurance, will that help you and do you need it? The question of whether you need it will partly depend on how you (or your insurance agent) view your level of risk. The cost of professional liability insurance will be markedly different depending on whether or not you hold a certification in the industry. In any case, one of the key factors in determining the extent of liability is competence. How you describe yourself, your free sessions, and your experience and qualifications will all determine the extent to which you will be held liable. The bottom line is that you can train for free without holding insurance, but you are taking a risk, more so if you are not also certified or experienced.

It should also be noted that insurance policy are primarily limited to negligence cases, which are based on carelessness rather than deliberate intention. Knowingly training clients in a methodology in which you know you do not have sufficient knowledge or competence may be considered intentional.


Do I need to be certified to offer personal training for free?

No. But then again, you don’t necessarily need a certification to be paid to train either. The District of Columbia (D.C) is the only jurisdiction that currently requires personal fitness trainers to register.

While you may not be certified, even training for free you can open yourself up to liability if you cannot prove your competence if someone is injured. Competence is most easily verified through independent sources.

So what if you aren’t certified? Should you give up? No, the best way to approach this is that if you are not certified, don’t say you are. It is that simple. Fraud will get you into far m ore trouble than being upfront about a lack of certification ever will. Even if you are training for free. By explaining that you are not certified or are trying to build experience if you are newly certified you may actually decrease your level of risk, because your “clients” are put on notice about your level of competence. In Guthrie v. Crouser (2003) the defendant represented himself as a certified personal trainer, however, his certification had lapsed at the time of the plaintiff’s injuries. The court did not look upon this kindly, and as a result of the judgment Crouser was required to pay damages.

Your documentation – including consent forms, disclaimers and waivers – should clearly state if you are certified or not. Here are our New Fitness Client Legalities 101 which may help you with your documentation!


Final words

Training for free is not bad thing – but go into it with open eyes. In the very least have an informed consent, assumption of risk, and release of liability package for “clients” to sign. Consider your level of risk before offering services, even services for free, and be honest about your level of certification and experience.

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