The advancement of technology has created an opportunity for effective group fitness classes to proliferate online. Though this is a popular option for many consumers, instructors must be aware of a number of legal issues when designing and leading virtual classes. Poorly designed classes, improper instruction and inadequate supervision can leave the instructor potentially liable for injuries sustained by participants.
As part of a good risk-management plan for any physical activity, instructors should retain professional liability insurance that specifically covers fitness-related movements and includes coverage for virtual classes, both for those originating at a gym as well as a private residence.
Any professional liability policy should be supplemented with an umbrella policy that applies to situations where the base insurance policy amount was surpassed. Most umbrella policies provide additional protection in the rare cases that the primary policy limits are exceeded.
If you currently have insurance that does not specifically cover virtual classes, discuss modifying your coverage with your provider. When securing any type of insurance, make sure that the insurance agent fully understands your needs, the fitness industry and applicable laws in various jurisdictions, and can show in the secured policies how your specific professional and personal activities are covered. This is an emerging area of law, as virtual classes could be delivered anywhere, and many insurance policies have not yet been adapted for this reality.
Virtual classes may be delivered asynchronously (i.e., video on demand) or synchronously (i.e., “livestreaming”).
If asynchronous, the session should begin with an on-screen health and liability disclaimer. A sample disclaimer could include language such as:
Any fitness activity can pose some potential risks to health. To reduce and avoid injury, a doctor should be consulted before beginning any exercise program. Be sure that the area within which you will exercise is appropriate for physical exertion. When you utilize [name of instructor’s] videos and/or participate in virtual classes, you are performing exercises at your own risk. [Name of instructor] will not be responsible or liable for any injury or harm you sustain as a result of your participation. If you experience any nausea, shortness of breath, feeling of lightheadedness, irregular heartbeat or other health concerns, cease exercise immediately and seek assistance from a doctor.
When a class will be delivered synchronously, similar messaging regarding health and liability should be conveyed to all participants. In an optimal situation, a virtual fitness class will be conducted in such a way where each attendee who participates can sign a disclaimer or agree to terms and conditions before proceeding to the class. That disclaimer should provide similar language to what is presented above.
If it is not possible to provide a disclaimer for every participant to sign or acknowledge receipt of before joining a class, it will be important to provide a verbal disclaimer at the start of the session.
Instructors should always begin each session with clearly expressed comments to everyone who will participate to remember the following:
- The importance for participants to seek medical clearance before beginning any exercise program
- The class experience level offered in this session
- Physical space, equipment and shoes/clothing needed to safely participate in the class, as well as a reminder about proper hydration
- Safety and well-being are the most important elements of the class
These reminders should not just be “glossed over” as a mere formality or rushed through quickly. They should be emphasized as important, and the instructor should consider creating a script to read at the beginning of each class. In addition to providing this information at the beginning of any class, the instructor should periodically remind participants during the session about the importance of maintaining proper health and safety while participating. This is especially important for sessions that may last longer than 20 minutes and/or may have late arrivals who miss the initial verbal disclaimer. The participants are the ones assuming the risks of participation, but the instructor needs to consistently remind them about best practices to maintain health and safety while participating. While it is certainly important for the instructor to distribute information and provide inspiration, they must also remind participants that it is their responsibility to know their own physical limits.
Group fitness has evolved to incorporate the increased use of technology to deliver instruction remotely. While technology may alter the setting, the importance of understanding and adhering to proper risk-management practices to decrease participant injury and limit instructor liability remains critical. Effective instructors know and adhere to their specific areas of expertise and work diligently to provide a safe environment where participants can maximize their health benefits while minimizing potential instructor liability.
ACE is providing this information for educational purposes to give you general information and understanding, not to provide specific legal advice. This should not be used as a substitute for legal advice. We encourage you to consult with a professional legal advisor in your location.