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Alack v. Vic Tanny Int'l - 923 S.W.2d 330 (Mo. 1996)

Rule:

Unless the intention of the parties is expressed in unmistakable language, an exculpatory clause will not be deemed to insulate a party from liability for his own negligent acts. Put another way, it must appear plainly and precisely that the limitation of liability extends to negligence or other fault of the party attempting to shed his ordinary responsibility.

Facts:

Plaintiff Charles Alack became a member of defendant Vic Tanny International of Missouri, Inc. ("Vic Tanny"), which operated health club facilities. When became a member, Alack signed a two-page, seventeen-paragraph "Retail Installment Contract" containing a general exculpatory clause. The clause, however, did not expressly release Vic Tanny from injuries resulting from its own negligence. Alack was injured while using a row machine at one of Vic Tanny's facilities. Aleck subsequently filed a negligence action against Vic Tanny in Missouri state court. Vic Tanny filed a motion for a directed verdict, contending that the exculpatory clause in the parties' contract insulated it from liability. The trial court denied the motion, but it allowed the contract as evidence and submitted the issue to the jury as a matter of fact. The jury returned a verdict for Alack in the amount of $ 17,000. Vic Tanny appealed, alleging, inter alia, that the trial court erred in denying it a directed verdict as a matter of law on Alack's negligence claim because of the exculpatory membership contract. Alack cross-appealed, claiming, inter alia, the trial court erred in allowing the exculpatory language into evidence because it was irrelevant and prejudicial, and, therefore, he was entitled to a new trial on damages.

Issue:

(1) Did the trial court err by denying Vic Tanny's motion for a directed verdict based on the exculpatory language of the parties' membership contract? (2) Did the trial court err by denying Alack a new trial as to damages?

Answer:

(1) No; (2) No.

Conclusion:

The state supreme court affirmed the trial court's judgment. The court ruled, inter alia, that: (1) the exculpatory clause in the parties' membership contract was ambiguous and did not use the words "negligence" or "fault" or their equivalents so that there was a clear and unmistakable waiver of Vic Tanny's liability, and thus it was properly denied a directed verdict on the negligence claim, and; (2) although the jury should not have been allowed to consider the exculpatory clause, Alack did not sufficiently demonstrate that the trial court's erroneous liability instruction actually influenced or prejudiced the jury's damage award. Thus, the trial court did not err in denying Alack a new trial on damages.

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