Keeping The Yoga Instructor Safe
The popularity of yoga is increasing1. This has led to a corresponding increase in yoga-related injury2. This has led (unsurprisingly) to increasing reports of lawsuits stemming from yoga-related injuries, discussed further below, and greater potential liability “exposure” facing yoga therapists/instructors and studios. Such claims are subject to general negligence principles and emerging codes of best practice. Professional liability insurance is increasingly available as a means to help protect yoga instructors, therapists, and studios from the financial and emotional consequences of a lawsuit, which can be devastating no matter how small, severe, or entirely baseless the claim is.
Typical Yoga/Therapy Injuries
As instructors know, during practice, it is not uncommon for yoga students to slip, fall, activate old injuries, move too quickly into poses, or push themselves too hard. Common grounds for potential personal injury lawsuits against yoga instructors include: (1) muscle injuries such as tears and strains; (2) joint injuries; (3) dislocations; and to a lesser extent (4) bruised and/or broken bones.
Common claims against yoga instructors arise from: (i) injury as a result of poor supervision; (ii) injury as a result of inadequate training technique and education; (iii) injury as a result of lack of proper stretching; and (iv) injury as a result of instructors physically manipulating or adjusting students while engaged in a particular pose3.
Two widely reported lawsuits were recently filed by yoga students alleging “severe and permanent injury” from “unsolicited physical manipulation” during a yoga class4. In Denver, Colorado, a yoga student filed a personal injury action against a yoga studio upon sustaining a torn medial meniscus5, after a yoga instructor adjusted the student without permission. Similarly, in Illinois, a Chicago-area yoga student filed a lawsuit against a yoga instructor after receiving alleged “severe and permanent injuries” when the instructors allegedly “grabbed and maneuvered” her body. In support of their claims for negligence, the students alleged that the yoga instructors and studios failed to exercise reasonable care, and failed to warn or instruct against the hazardous condition or activity of unsolicited physical manipulation during the activity of yoga. Both lawsuits were ultimately settled outside of court (the values of the settlements were kept confidential).
Stating a Claim
Claims against a yoga instructor or studio relating to personal injuries that occur during practice are grounded in traditional principles of negligence. A plaintiff must demonstrate: (1) a “duty of care” owed by the defendant to the plaintiff (generally easily established); (2) a “breach” of that duty (using the industry standard); and (3) “proximately caused injury” (i.e. an injury resulting from the instructor’s breach of his/her duty). See Solomon v. City of New York, 66 N.Y.2d 1026 (1985).
In the case of yoga instructors, the duty of care is readily established in the case of students. Non-student “guests” (e.g. friends of students) and/or claimed attendees with no record of being present could present liability questions, but even those could likely sustain a viable claim. One could also expect plaintiff’s counsels attempting to broaden the scope of an instructor’s duty of care (e.g. to detecting/identifying/diagnosing previously unknown conditions and/or to students who repeat formal sessions/exercises at home, informally).
With respect to breach of the duty of care, the standard is that of the “reasonable yoga instructor [or studio]” having regard to all the circumstances and any operative codes of conduct/best practice. Currently, no official national regulatory body exists to oversee the practice of yoga. Instead, each state has its own established policies and procedures.
Some states, including Michigan, Wisconsin, and Arizona require yoga schools/ facilities that train yoga instructors/therapists to apply for a vocational license, pay an annual fee, and submit to inspections. See, e.g., state-imposed guidelines for Wisconsin, at State of Wisconsin Education Approval Board at http://eab.state.wi.us/resources/newschool.asp. Other states, such as New York and Virginia, succeeded in getting the State Education Department to suspend licensing efforts and instead lobby for legislation to make yoga exempt from regulation6. The voluntary online yoga registry established for the purpose of creating teaching standards for training instructors, created by a non-profit organization, the Yoga Alliance, in 1999, is also still in operation today. See http://yogaalliance.org//
Consents, Waivers and Releases Are Not a Complete Defense
Although many facilities that provide fitness instruction require students to execute a waiver and release of liability, an executed release in which the releasee assumes various risks associated with a sport does not explicitly bar claims of negligence against the defendant. See Machowski v. Gallant, 234 A.D.2d 933 (4th Dept. 1996). Even though individuals in fitness activities may be held to have consented, by their participation, to those injury-causing events which are known, apparent or reasonably foreseeable consequences, a defendant still has a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect participants from unassumed, concealed or unreasonably increased risks.
Vicarious (Employer) Liability
If an injury is sustained during a yoga class, recourse may be sought against the yoga instructor individually as well as the yoga studio. To avoid liability or having to insure the individual instructor, a studio/employer could use a defense that the instructor was not acting “in the course of his or her employment” but was instead acting on a “frolic of his/her own” (i.e. performing activities not contemplated by the studio or employer). Although that may conceivably open the employer/studio up to a “negligent hiring” claim, that may be little consolation to the practitioner/therapist facing liability/having to defend a claim on their own.
Types of Damages
If the injury is minor, the injured student may seek to recover the reimbursement of medical costs incurred in connection with treating the injury. Such reimbursement may be covered under the no-fault provisions of an insurance policy.
If, however the injury is severe and/or permanent requiring extensive medical treatment or surgical intervention, compensatory monetary damages for loss of wages and even emotional distress, may be sought. One could also envisage the scenario in which pregnancy-related claims are alleged, for example, that yoga practice caused pregnancy-related difficulties and/or, in extreme circumstances, miscarriage. Yoga instructors/studios should be (and thankfully most are) highly conscious of pregnancy issues and there are many publically available resources dedicated to this topic7.
The nature of yoga’s physically demanding and intimate practice environment creates a real threat for potential professional liability exposure. Due to the increased popularity and commensurate threat of injury, professional liability insurance is seemingly becoming an increasingly indispensable risk management tool for both yoga instructors and studios8. There are various injuries that may occur during what can be an intense, physically challenging practice. Lawsuits resulting from such injuries will be governed by general negligence principles and emerging codes of best practice.
Most professionals in the healthcare and wellness arena, including physical therapists, fitness instructors, and personal trainers, maintain professional liability insurance coverage. Coverage is never procured with the intent or expectation that it will be needed. Its purpose is to serve as a safety net – to protect professionals who want to devote their focus, energy, and finance to helping others achieve mental and physical balance and wellbeing.
1 Statistics presented in the Yoga Journal noted that only 35% of U.S. fitness centers offered yoga in 1993. However, by 2000, that figure had doubled to 75%, and by 2003 had increased to 85%. In 2008, 15.8 million people in the U.S. practiced yoga, and of non-practitioners, 18.3 million Americans indicated they were extremely interested in yoga, with 9.4 million stating they would try it next year. A recent article regarding the government regulation of yoga instruction reported that the yoga industry was grossing an estimated $5.7 billion annually. See “Yoga in America” study, Yoga Journal at http://www.yogajournal.com/advertise/press_releases/10; see also, Reports of Injuries, Sexual Abuse and Cultic Practices are Growing, Should Yoga be Regulated? by Stewart J. Lawrence, April 2-4, 2010 at http://www.counterpunch.org/lawrence04022010.html
2 According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, there were more than 5,500 yoga-related injuries treated in doctors’ offices, clinics and emergency rooms in 2007, incurring a total cost of approximately $108 million. See http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00063
4 See http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/13/nyregion/13stretch.html New York Times, “The Delicate Art of Adjustments” Emily S. Rueb, February 11, 2011.
5 A torn medial meniscus is a tear of the soft band underneath the kneecap.
6 See Yoga Faces Regulation, and Firmly Pushes Back, New York Times, July 10, 2009 by A.G. Sulzberger at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/ 07/11/nyregion/11yoga.html; see also May 28, 2009 New York State Bill to exempt yoga schools from licensing requirements, http://www.yogaforawareness.org/ S5701_2009.pdf; http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/new-va-law-to-exempt-yoga-teachers-from-state-regulations; Virginia Bill to exempt yoga schools from licensing requirements, http://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?101+sum+HB703.
8 Although many yoga practitioner websites note (wisely) that proper training and education are essential to operating a safe yoga practice, many such websites note that yoga studios are resorting to additional forms of liability protection such as insurance. See e.g., professional liability insurance recommended by the Yoga Alliance and the Yoga Journal: http://www.yogajournal.com/benefitsplus/; http://www.inneridea.com /insurance; http://www.namasta.com/