Online Coaching what are the risks?

Online Coaching Risks & Liability

In Blog, Contracts 101, Online Business Necessities by Shannon Montgomery

Personal training insurance is widely used by trainers who train on their own, and in gyms. Because, lets face it, when you are proscribing someone an exercise protocol sometimes that person is going to get injured. And being the litigious society that we are, that person may decide to sue you. But do trainers who only train their clients solely online need to be worried about personal injury and other liabilities? Absolutely.

Areas of Liability

Personal Injury

Personal injury is likely the first one that comes to mind. As mentioned above, if a client is injured while performing an exercise that a trainer instructed them to do, there is liability there on part of the trainer. The extent of the trainers liability is going to depend greatly on a number of different factors including but not limited to the trainer being appropriately trained and certified, the pre-program testing and assessments performed, whether or not the client give informed consent, and do they have clearance from a physician to participate in the exercise program?

Nutrition and Supplementation Guidance

Other areas of concern are giving guidance on nutrition and supplementation. There are laws in every state regarding who can give meal plans and nutrition advice. If you read my personal training certification article linked here, you can find resources on this topic. It is important to take note of this, and plan for that when handling online clients. If trainers bend the rules on this, they are looking at the potential to be disciplined by the state regulatory body in charge, and of course even more trouble if a client decides to sue for injuries or illnesses incurred while working with them.

Defamation, Invasion of Privacy and more

Another less publicized issue rests on the use of a clients story and fitness journey to market the services of a personal trainer. Without the proper consent forms and photo releases in place, a trainer leaves the door open to being sued. A trainer might decide to use a check in before and after photo of a client on their website to show their ability to get results for clients. However, what if that client is released from their job because a scantily clad photo of them surfaces on the internet? They have a case for defamation against the trainer that put the photo online without their consent.

Best Practices for Protecting Yourself

So what are the ways a trainer can protect themselves from liability, and hopefully keep from being sued by disgruntled, or injured clients.

Get Certified

Being certified, although not legally required as far as my research shows would be beneficial in an argument to the court that as a trainer, you knew what you were doing when giving exercise programs. I would highly suggest obtaining an appropriate certification prior to embarking on a career as an online fitness coach. Again, not legally required but the landscape in the health and fitness community is changing and I suspect that it is not too far fetched to think that states will begin to require this in the near future.

Proper Pre Program Assessments and Clearances

Insisting on medical clearance for all clients is not out of the question. I suggest any client considered high risk is a must. Even moderate risk clients can fall into this category. Requiring clients to obtain proper medical clearance from their physician will help to show that as a trainer, you knew the client was able to perform the exercise program with little medical risk. Assess risk levels by properly screening the client prior to working with them. Utilize questionnaires like the PAR-Q and requiring a full health history and exercise history forms. Once a client has been cleared by their physician, or you as the trainer have assessed they are at low risk always perform a type of fitness assessment. Learn how well the client moves, and understands their own body before giving them a program. Having documentation indicating that it was safe for this client to being your exercise program adds another layer of protection.

Obtain Informed Consent and Waivers

An informed consent form and a release of liability form are not the same thing. And you should utilize both in your online coaching business. First note that if the client is not 18 years or older, they cannot sign an informed consent form or release of liability on their own.

An informed consent form will explain to the client all of the potential benefits and risk associated with participating in this specific exercise program. Be open with the client what is expected, and what might happen as a result of participation. This document should be written in lay language—so not legal mumbo jumbo. The courts need to see that the client was fully aware of what the program required, and they wanted to freely and openly participate. Give the client an opportunity to ask questions about the program and the potential risks, and keep notes of that conversation.

A release of liability form is also a great tool to protect from liability. Essentially, a liability waiver states that the client is aware of the potential risks and waives their right to sue for injury, illness, etc. While liability waivers are great, certain states like  Louisiana, Montana, New Mexico and Virginia hold them to be against public policy so they won’t do you a ton of good if your online client is living in one of those states.

Further, the case law in most states does not favor liability waivers. They are usually strictly construed against the party seeking to rely on them. Courts often look to see if the waivers are overly broad, and whether the signer understands its significance and truly knows what it is they are signing. As a best practice I do think that a properly worded liability waiver paired with the informed consent form are layers of protection that any online coach needs prior to working with clients.

Photo Releases

Although not thought of often, a photo releasee and permission to use a clients images and story can be as important as the informed consent form. Obtaining permission from a client to use their photo on any website including social media will be very beneficial to the trainer for marketing purposes, and keep the client from suing you for doing so. Of course, you can only use the photos for the purposes stated in the release so ensure that the release covers all areas and instances in which client photo’s might be used, and for what purposes.

Keep Proper Records

If you succeed in getting together all of the above but fail to keep any record of it, you really didn’t help your business much. When you have the proper physician clearances, all of the pre program assessments done, informed consent is given and signed alongside a liability waiver, keep it all in a secure file. As an online trainer, keeping records and notes of all online clients is imperative to protecting yourself and the business from liability.

To Wrap it All Up

Online personal training is a very rewarding career. Working online allows a trainer to work with clients all over the world, not just in their community. As amazing as it is to work with and change the lives of so many, it also leaves the trainer open to more liability than I think many realize. There is no guarantee that you won’t be held liable for an injury to a client, but having the above forms in place will certainly help minimize the damage.

If you have questions comments or concerns please feel free to reach out to me either on my website or via email at shannon@montgomerypllc.com. Also, be sure to find us on YouTube and Instagram @MontgomeryLawPllc for more legal content to help your fitness business grow!

Please note that this is not meant to be legal advice for you or your situation, this is merely some legal research and knowledge on the given topic.