Planet Fitness Violates Public Health Law Resulting in Montgomery County Man’s Death

John A. DeGasperis leaning and looking professional

Basch & Keegan LLP gives surviving family a second chance.

Wrongful death lawsuits are not only about recovering damages for family members who have lost loved ones to tragedy. These cases also serve to protect the general public by holding corporations and other wrongdoers accountable for their negligent acts. Whether it be a product liability claim against a drug manufacturer or a slip-and-fall accident against a big box store, the attorneys at Basch & Keegan, LLP have been holding corporations accountable for more than 40 years.

Recently, John A. DeGasperis, an associate attorney at Basch & Keegan, filed a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of a bereaved family against one of the nation’s largest health club franchises: Planet Fitness. John’s client, then a forty-year old man, died in a Planet Fitness health club located in Upstate New York. This tragedy was sudden, unexpected, and potentially avoidable.

John’s client had gone with his wife just days before Christmas to the Planet Fitness health club located in Amsterdam New York. Together the couple completed an hour-long exercise program that included cardiovascular and weight training. Shortly thereafter, John’s client was discovered face down on the locker room floor. He had suffered a sudden cardiac arrest.

Coincidentally, two registered nurses were exercising in the same Planet Fitness health club when John’s client went down. Both nurses sprung into action when they heard the cries for help, and they began to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) in an effort to revive the man’s heart. While administering CPR, one of the nurses asked a staff member to retrieve the club’s AED so that they could shock the man’s heart back into a normal rhythm. The staff member, a teenager with zero medical training, searched frantically for an AED but she soon discovered the club was not equipped with an AED. Consequently, the nurses were not able to revive the man’s heart. He was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.

The family did not approach John until almost one year after the incident. They had been rejected by two other attorneys before being referred to John by one of his law school classmates. John evaluated the case, studied the medicine, and concluded the two prior attorneys had erred by rejecting the case. John filed suit against Planet Fitness Amsterdam, LLC, a franchise of Pla-Fit Franchise LLC. The complaint, which was filed in the New York State Court System, alleged that Planet Fitness had violated New York’s General Business Law § 627-a by failing to have an Automated External Defibrillator (AED) on premises. The complaint alleged Planet Fitness was partially responsible for the death of John’s client insofar as they had deprived him of an opportunity of survival by not having an AED on premises.

An AED is a portable electronic device that automatically diagnoses life-threatening cardiac arrhythmias and treats them through defibrillation, which is the application of electricity to stop arrhythmias, thereby allowing the heart to reestablish normal rhythm. AED’s are easy to use and have been statistically proven to save lives. In fact, the National Safety Council estimates that AED’s could save upward of 30,000 lives each year. New York’s General Business Law requires health clubs of 500 members or more to have, on premises, both an AED and at least one staff member certified in CPR.

During discovery, John took testimony from several people employed by Planet Fitness including the company’s Chief Financial Officer who admitted that she was aware of New York’s law mandating the use of AED’s. She was aware also of the fact that the club had opened its doors for business without an AED on premises. According to the CFO, she had ordered an AED for the health club but the device had not yet arrived when the local building department issued the Certificate of Occupany two days before the day when John’s client died. Rather than wait until an AED had arrived, Planet Fitness intentionally disregarded the law by electing to open its doors for business in order to start making money from memberships. In doing so, Planet Fitness exposed all of its members to a reasonably foreseeable risk of serious physical injury or death. “We know now what can happen when health clubs operate without AED’s,” said John.

Initially, Planet Fitness defended its negligent conduct by arguing that its Amsterdam location did not have 500 members, which meant it would have been exempt from the AED requirements contained within General Business Law § 627-a. John responded to the company’s argument by using advertisements marketing the various benefits of the Planet Fitness “Black Card,” one of which is the ability to gain entry to all Planet Fitness locations. John used the advertisements to demonstrate that, even though the Amsterdam location may not have had 500 members, the location had to be ready and willing to accommodate Black Card members from other Planet Fitness locations. John’s liability argument prevailed, and Planet Fitness had no legal or factual argument to negate its negligent conduct.

Once Planet Fitness realized it had to accept at least some responsibility for the man’s untimely death, the company changed its defense by arguing that an AED would not have changed the ultimate outcome. Specifically, Planet Fitness adopted the position that John’s client would have died even if an AED had been available. In response, John hired an expert witness, i.e., a cardiologist, to review the autopsy report in an effort to quantify the man’s likelihood of receiving a better outcome had an AED been made available. The expert discovered that the man had suffered an acute myocardial infarction to the heart’s left main artery. Said differently, the man suffered a severe and massive heart attack, which is commonly referred to as the “widowmaker.” This factual reality did severely undermine John’s case but he persevered because both he and his expert believed the man would have had some chance of survival had Planet Fitness been properly equipped with the affordable, life-saving device.

In response to Planet Fitness’s defense on causation, John asserted the “loss of chance doctrine.” This legal theory, often used in the context of medical malpractice cases, stands for the proposition that when a defendant tortiously destroys or reduces a victim’s prospects for achieving a more favorable outcome, the plaintiff should be compensated for that lost prospect. This legal theory afforded John enough ammunition to get the case to trial. Just weeks before trial, Planet Fitness invited John and his clients to participate in non-binding mediation.

The case eventually settled for more than $550,000 with Planet Fitness making a $5,000 donation to the American Heart Association in honor of John’s deceased client. In a discussion after the case had settled, John said, “At the end of the day, we were able to prove that Planet Fitness chose profits over the safety and wellbeing of its members. Their negligence cost a man his life, and the company simply could not let that issue go before a jury.”

For those people who lose a loved one due to the negligent acts of others, New York law affords them a right of recovery for wrongful death. Those aggrieved parties should take immediate action due to the two-year statute of limitations. Family members of victims who find themselves confronted with these types of difficult situations should seek the guidance of an experienced lawyer who understands the complexities of wrongful death lawsuits. Basch and Keegan has more than 40-years experience handling these unique cases.

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What law authorizes wrongful death statutes?

In New York, there is no common law wrongful death claim. Instead, New York has adopted a statutory cause of action for wrongful death embodied in the Estates, Powers and Trusts Law (EPTL) § 5–4.1. The statute authorizes the personal representative of a decedent survived by distributees to maintain an action for wrongful death .

How much time do I have to file a wrongful death lawsuit?

The statute (EPTL § 5–4.1) provides for a two-year statute of limitations. There are only two exceptions to this rule. This means you must file suit within two years of the date of death.

What types of damages am I entitled to recover if I file a wrongful death statute?

The beneficiaries of one’s estate are limited to recovering the money they would have gained from the their loved one had he or she remained alive after the subject accident. The EPTL specifically provides that the damages awarded in a wrongful death action may be such sum as the jury, or, if the action is tried without a jury, the court or the referee, deems to be fair and just compensation for the pecuniary injuries resulting from the decedent’s death to the persons for whose benefit the action is brought. The word pecuniary means of, relating to, or consisting of money.