Climbing Gym Battles $1 Million Lawsuit Over Auto Belay Accident

Seattle’s Vertical World climbing gym is fighting a $1,000,000 lawsuit brought by an injured gym member, who allegedly fell off an auto-belay route after failing to fully clip in.

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Seattle’s Vertical World climbing gym is, according to the Climbing Wall Association, fighting a $1,000,000 lawsuit brought by an injured gym member, who allegedly fell off an auto-belay route after failing to fully clip the auto belay’s carabiner into his harness. 

Vertical World, founded in Seattle in 1987 and known as the first official climbing gym in America, now operates three gyms in Washington, with two additional locations in Redmont and Lynnwood. Though the gym’s founder and owner, Rich Johnston, noted that this is far from the first time he’s had to tackle a lawsuit, it’s the first time one has involved their auto belay system. He sees the case, Vandivere vs. Vertical World, as the “canary in the coal mine lawsuit” for auto belays in the climbing gym industry. 

The plaintiff, Michael Vandivere (who declined to speak with Gym Climber for this article) stated that he was familiar with how carabiners work and had some climbing experience in other gyms prior to moving to Seattle and joining Vertical World. He had already visited the gym 30 times when, during an early morning solo session, he fell on an auto-belay route and sustained numerous injuries. A closed, intact carabiner was found at the top of the wall attached to the auto-belay line, which was also in proper working condition. According to Johnston, a nearby climber reported that they saw Vandivere attempt to clip in before heading up the route. 

Vandivere is suing Vertical World on the basis that the gym staff should’ve clipped him into his auto belay. 

Vertical World requires climbers to pass a belay test before using any auto belay device unsupervised. “We don’t look at it as a substitution for not knowing how to belay,” says Johnston. “It’s technical equipment and we don’t want anybody in the gym touching it unless they pass a belay check.” 

According to Johnston, Vertical World has this clearly listed in their rules, which are displayed throughout the gym, along with numerous ClimbSmart! posters. Their mandatory orientation video and waiver also clearly state the rules. According to Johnston, Vandivere claims he never saw the posted rules or ClimbSmart! posters in his visits to Vertical World, and also states that the orientation video “skipped” over the portion explaining that auto belays are off limits to the unsupervised unless the climber passes a belay check. 

According to Johnston, Vandivere also claims the waiver form was blank and didn’t come up on his screen due to a technical problem, despite the fact that Vertical World has a signed copy of Vandivere’s waiver. Vandivere also claims that on the day of his accident a staff member said he could use the auto belay, but he did not remember the name of the person who told him this nor whether it was a male or female staff member.

Vandivere’s suit against Vertical World alleges that, by not ensuring he was properly clipped into his auto belay, the gym engaged in “gross negligence.” 

Vertical World’s insurance company wanted to settle, but Johnston refused. “If you start rolling over on stuff like this, the industry is going to be hit,” he said. “Everyone is going to look at [gyms] like a payday. He added that the industry practices and regulations surrounding auto belay use are still murky, and unfortunately it’s fallen on Vertical World to hold the front lines.  “We don’t know what ‘monitoring’ means in this industry,” said Johnston. “We don’t have good parameters for what it means to be ‘qualified’ to use an auto belay. There are a lot of things that need to be cleaned up, because this is not gonna get better.”

“It’s a risky move to go to trial,” Johnston admitted, “but I’m willing to do it. I don’t mind being the pointy end of the spear on this one. There will be ramifications if this thing goes the wrong way. We gotta fight this lawsuit, otherwise it’ll be open season for everybody.”