Reasonable Doubt: What did I sign?

Gym memberships, liability waivers, and surprise fees
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It’s that time of year again: the time when some of us come to terms with the fact that we’re never going to keep our New Years’ resolution to go to the gym four times a week. Enticed by promotions to “shed away holiday fat for just dollars a day!” we flocked to the gym that first week of January on roads paved with only the best intentions.  

After maybe four or six visits to that sweaty hamster wheel of hell, some of us have come to realize that we’d rather be spending our lunch hour happily snarfing down a sandwich than fighting over a cardio machine, but now we’re stuck paying a gym $75 per month for eternity.

“Sweet Christmas,” you might be saying, “what have I signed and how do I get out of it?”

If you’re hoping to weasel out of the deal, some gyms will have a trial period or cancellation clause in the first few weeks of the contract that will offer a means of escape.  For the contracts that do not, the Business Practices and Consumer Protection Act steps in. Within 15 days of entering into a contract, a gym is required to give you a copy of the terms. You then have 10 days from the time you receive a copy of the contract to cancel it.

The law also requires that a gym contract set out some key information, including how you can cancel the contract, all terms of payment, any restrictions/limitations of the services you are receiving, and any additional fees. You also cannot be locked into a gym membership for more than two years, which is why a lot of gym memberships move to a month-to-month contract after a set period of time. 

There are other ways that the legislation allows you to cancel a gym membership. If you develop a serious disability and a doctor says it would be dangerous to your health to use the gym, you can cancel your membership. You can also cancel if you or the gym relocates and you’re more than 30 kilometres from the nearest facility. 

If you can show that there is a “material change” in the services provided by your gym, this is another way that you could cancel your membership. If say, for instance, you joined a gym because of its ample cardio equipment, and then the gym phased out all of that equipment, you may have a good argument that this is a “material change” in the services that the gym provides.

Outside of that 10-day grace period and these other cancellation options, however, a contract is a contract, and a gym is just like any other business.  Absent evidence to the contrary, the law presumes that adults are competent and capable of entering into a legal contract. If you signed it, you’re stuck with it. 

Which brings me to my next point: know what you're signing. The gym may give you a large, multi-page document in size six font. Read it. If you don’t understand what it says, ask. Don’t be shy—it’s better to ask than to be stung with some hidden fees down the road.

My friend, Keith Pope, recently had an experience with a downtown gym that exemplifies why you should not hesitate to clarify the terms of your gym membership. About six months into his contract, the gym told Keith that he had to pay an additional fee. 

“So when the time comes for me to pay this fee, I requested a copy of my signed contract to simply verify that the amount on my signed contract matches what I’m currently being asked to pay,” Keith explained. “This request was made because I’ve heard the horror stories from other members about how [this gym] isn’t always upfront and honest when it comes to charging fees.”

The gym’s response to Keith’s request?  The gym staff couldn’t find the contract he signed, so they took an electronic copy of Keith’s signature that they had on file and affixed it to a contract.  How does Keith know? Aside from the appearance of the obviously altered electronic document, the gym staff included him in an email trail where they directed that his signature be added to the document. 

Wow.

Coincidentally, I have also experienced this gym’s less-than-exemplary business practices. When I joined, a staff member directed me to sign an electronic keypad. When I asked what I was signing, the staff member said it was a liability waiver.

I asked if I could read it first. The staff member said that he couldn’t print it out for me until after I had signed it. 

I laughed. I can just imagine the gym’s lawyers’ horror if tasked with trying to rely on a liability waiver that a member was told that she could not read before she signed it. Perhaps it was fortunate for all parties that my sporadic visits coupled with my feeble, less-than-rigorous workouts made injury at their site so very unlikely.

So for those of you looking to join a gym, read your contract and know what you’re signing. If you’re a “resolutionary” looking to throw in the towel on your fitness membership, you may have a few options under the Consumer Protection Act to get out of your contract. The majority of us gym members, however, will be stuck with the bill and trying to muster up the motivation to wheeze on a treadmill after work.

Check out Reasonable Doubt next Friday: Laurel Dietz will explore parental rights for sperm donors in British Columbia. 

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