Health & Medicine

Brain-injury lawsuit highlights treadmill risks

Etelvina Jimenez, 66, and her husband, Pedro, describe how her life-altering injury has affected their day-to-day routine on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016, in Sacramento, Calif. Jimenez fell off a treadmill at a 24 Hour Fitness gym in 2011 and suffered severe brain injuries. She is still impaired and is suing the company for gross negligence, seeking $3.8 million in lost wages and future long-term care.
Etelvina Jimenez, 66, and her husband, Pedro, describe how her life-altering injury has affected their day-to-day routine on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016, in Sacramento, Calif. Jimenez fell off a treadmill at a 24 Hour Fitness gym in 2011 and suffered severe brain injuries. She is still impaired and is suing the company for gross negligence, seeking $3.8 million in lost wages and future long-term care. aseng@sacbee.com

Stepping into the gym is supposed to be good for us.

But every year, thousands of Americans tumble off equipment, drop heavy weights or push themselves too far, resulting in torn muscles, strained backs and broken bones. Some even die.

Exercise equipment – whether at home or in the gym – carries inherent risks. Just ask U.S. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who suffered severe eye injuries last year after a latex exercise band snapped while he was exercising at his Las Vegas home. In October, the Democratic leader reportedly filed a $50,000 lawsuit against the exercise band’s manufacturer.

About 460,000 injuries involving exercise equipment – primarily treadmills – are treated in hospital emergency rooms annually, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Despite such dangers, consumers are largely on their own in avoiding injury while exercising. Local and state authorities do not inspect how gym or fitness centers place their equipment, whether it’s dumbbells, elliptical machines or treadmills. In Sacramento, for instance, annual city fire inspections only check to ensure that gym equipment isn’t blocking fire exits.

But a lawsuit by a south Sacramento grandmother against one of the country’s biggest fitness chains could be “a game changer,” at least in how gym equipment is situated.

In January 2011, Etelvina Jimenez, then 60, apparently fainted while on a 24 Hour Fitness treadmill and fell backward, striking her head and fracturing her skull in several places. She spent nearly four months in Sacramento hospitals, undergoing several surgeries to remove blood clots and relieve pressure on her skull. In hospital photos, a circle of stitches arcs around the top of her shaved head, like miniature railroad tracks.

“She survived, but she’ll never be the same,” said Moseley Collins, an El Dorado Hills personal injury attorney. “She is walking and talking but her brain is impaired.”

Jimenez is suing 24 Hour Fitness for $3.8 million in damages to cover her lost wages and future long-term care, including physical therapy, neuropsychology counseling and household “chore services.”

This week, the suit is back in court to add additional damages to the complaint, which primarily accuses 24 Hour Fitness of providing an inadequate safety zone behind the treadmill. A mandatory settlement conference is scheduled for Jan. 12. If no settlement is reached, the case will go to trial on Feb. 27.

Attorneys for 24 Hour Fitness USA Inc. declined to comment on the lawsuit and referred questions to a company spokesperson.

“As a matter of policy, 24 Hour Fitness does not comment on litigation,” said an emailed statement from the San Ramon-based company. Founded by Sacramento Kings co-owner Mark Mastrov, 24 Hour Fitness has more than 400 clubs in 13 states.

Treadmill injuries – at home or in the gym – are the most common injury on exercise equipment, according to safety commission data. Roughly 24,000 people a year are treated in emergency rooms for treadmill injuries, including broken bones, abrasions and burns.

In the insurance industry, accidents by individuals during gym or health club workouts are often referred to as “member malfunctions.” They include people who suffer knee injuries doing squats, wrist sprains from rolling off an exercise ball, back strains performing deadlifts and smashed fingers when replacing dumbbells.

But treadmill accidents are the most frequent. “Ninety-nine percent of the time in these accidents, it’s operator error. People get distracted,” said Ken Reinig, owner of Reinig Insurance Solutions, a Lakewood, Colo.-based firm that insures about 1,100 independent health clubs and gyms nationwide.

“Treadmills are unique in that once the treadmill is set to its desired speed or incline, the machine doesn’t know if you lost your balance or are reaching for a water bottle or changing the music channel. With every other piece of equipment, if you run into difficulty, the machine stops.”

Reinig, who does not insure 24 Hour Fitness, said most cases involving gym injuries tend to get settled for low amounts because the negligence is almost always on the part of the club member.

But the Jimenez case is “a potential game changer,” he said, given its focus on treadmill placement.

Most of the lawsuit is focused on the so-called “safety zone” behind the treadmill. According to Jimenez’s complaint, the treadmill manufacturer, Woodinville, Wash.-based Precor, states in its owners’ manual that the “minimum space requirement needed for user safety and proper maintenance” is 3 feet wide by 6 feet deep, directly behind the running belt.

A deeper clearance – 78 inches or 6.5 feet – is recommended behind exercise treadmills by ASTM International, the international agency that publishes voluntary technical standards for a range of equipment.

At 24 Hour Fitness, the back of Jimenez’s treadmill was sitting about half that distance – 3 feet 10 inches – from the metal box of a leg exercise machine, according to a witness and a consulting engineer hired by Collins.

That’s not unusual, according to gym insurer Reinig. “There isn’t a health club in the country that puts 6 feet behind their treadmills. Those machines are packed in tight.” He said gyms typically allow 4 feet at the back to accommodate wheelchair access.

In February 2015, Consumer Reports wrote about how to avoid treadmill accidents, including serious skin burns from the moving belt and people “who lose their footing and end up pinned between a wall and the machine.” It advised consumers to know how to stop the treadmill, wear the machine’s safety clip and follow proper techniques for getting on and off a moving treadmill. It also urged consumers to “clear the area” behind a treadmill, following either the manufacturer’s instructions or the 6.5-foot distance recommended by ASTM.

In rare cases, people can die in treadmill accidents. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, about 30 deaths were reported in the decade between 2003 and 2012.

While rare, treadmill deaths make headlines when they involve celebrities or prominent individuals. In May 2015, David Goldberg, the Silicon Valley CEO of SurveyMonkey and husband of Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, died of head injuries after falling off a treadmill at a beachfront vacation villa near Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. (According to news accounts, an autopsy report indicated he suffered a heart arrhythmia, which may have caused his fall.) In 2009, the 4-year-old daughter of former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson was strangled at home in Phoenix by a cord attached to the family’s exercise treadmill.

Jimenez’s lawsuit was first heard in February 2011 in Sacramento Superior Court, which issued a summary judgment in 2012 in favor of 24 Hour Fitness, requiring her to pay $2,447 in legal fees. An appellate court overturned that ruling, finding grounds for a trial, based on claims of gross negligence (treadmill clearance) and fraud (having Jimenez sign a liability waiver in English, which she doesn’t read).

The accident occurred as Jimenez, who was a Mission Linen Supply worker, was walking on a treadmill at the 24 Hour Fitness gym on Florin Road, where she was a member. She experienced an apparent episode of “syncope,” fainting or loss of consciousness, according to medical reports. With the treadmill motor running, she fell off the back end, hitting her head and losing consciousness. Instead of landing on the gym’s “shock-absorbing” floor covering, it’s believed her skull struck the metal box of the leg exercise machine, causing major brain trauma, according to medical reports and witness statements.

Hospitalized for about 80 days at three Sacramento hospitals – Methodist, Kaiser Permanente in south Sacramento and Mercy San Juan – Jimenez underwent several surgeries for internal bleeding and swelling in her brain. At one point, according to court documents, her prognosis was described as “grim,” and “likely an unrecoverable TBI (traumatic brain injury).” But in April 2011, after nearly four months of hospitalizations, Jimenez was released.

Today, more than five years later, the 66-year-old looks well, but has persistent memory lapses and head pain that have prevented her from returning to work or feeling confident enough to drive, she says. Speaking through a Spanish language interpreter at the Florinwood Drive apartment she shares with her husband, Pedro, Jimenez said she doesn’t remember anything about her accident or why she fell.

“It changed everything, completely. Life is not the same,” she said last week. She no longer drives, forgets simple tasks like adding ingredients while cooking, and can’t tip her head without incurring dizziness and pain. Rubbing the side of her head, she let a reporter feel the slight indentations in her skull, which she said were caused by the surgical procedures following her accident.

Certainly, treadmill accidents like that of Jimenez are not the norm.

“It’s usually someone who’s very enthusiastic or less experienced and tries to do too much too soon and gets an injury,” said Dr. Jeffrey Tanji, co-director of the sports medicine program at UC Davis Health System. Typically, the injuries he sees are from overuse, such as a torn rotator cuff or Achilles tendon caused by too many repetitions or lifting weights that are too heavy.

Tanji’s best advice: “Use common sense and be very careful if you’re exercising on a piece of equipment that’s brand new to you. Go slowly and carefully and have someone with you.”

Despite the potential risks, he hopes that injuries and lawsuits do not hold people back from working out.

“We want to encourage people to not be afraid of exercise,” Tanji said. “But at the same time, we want them to be aware of the dangers. It’s a fine line.”

Claudia Buck: 916-321-1968, @Claudia_Buck

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