A few weeks ago, we published a news piece detailing a legal dispute between Seattle’s Vertical World climbing gym and a gym patron, which has been ongoing since 2019. The plaintiff, who is suing the gym for $1,000,000, failed to properly attach himself to an auto belay line before climbing and took a fall, injuring himself.
Vertical World has a policy that climbers can’t use their auto belay devices until they are belay certified (the plaintiff was not, but claimed he wasn’t aware of this rule). In short, his claim is based on the fact that the auto belay device operator’s manual stipulates that users should be kept under “constant supervision by a trained operator” while using the equipment. The manual further states that prior to letting climbers climb, “operators must check to verify that each climber has: Properly fitted and secured climbing harness; Properly clipped their harness onto the [auto belay device] carabiner.”
He is suing because he was able to go over to an auto belay and start climbing on it without anyone stopping him (i.e. the gym didn’t save him from himself). Shocker, huh?
As Vertical World founder and owner Rich Johnston told me when we spoke about the lawsuit, the incident poses a conundrum for the gym industry. What is “constant supervision?” Does it simply mean having a gym staffer at the front desk and/or somewhere on the gym floor at all times, as most gyms do? Or does it mean having a dedicated safety rep hovering over each and every climber, inspecting their every move the entire time they’re on an auto belay? Is it somewhere in between?
The injured climber declined to speak with me for my article, so I can only guess at his motivations for suing, but Johnston told me the individual’s insurance fully covered his injuries, which he has since recovered from. He had visited Vertical World over two dozen times before the incident and had climbed before that at other gyms, so he wasn’t a complete novice. He knew he messed up. Besides, even a six-year-old at a birthday party can clip into an auto belay.
I can only assume that he’s bringing charges against the gym simply because he can. He does have a case, based on the auto belay’s manual, as scummy and underhanded as said case is. He saw an opportunity to score big and took it.
Accountability on the part of a climbing gym is expected in some situations, of course. Unlike an outdoor rock wall, a gym is a private, for-profit entity. You’re paying to use a climbing gym’s equipment and services, and you should be able to do so safely. If a poorly-maintained top rope line snaps, if a bolt pulls out of a wall and you deck, if your rented belay device busts… these are things I could see bringing a lawsuit for.
But improperly attaching yourself to an auto belay…. Come on. You wouldn’t go hop on a motorcycle without knowing how to ride one, crash it, and blame Harley-Davidson for your accident, would you?
Whatever a manual says, is it that revolutionary of an idea that your own mistakes should be your responsibility?
Some may disagree with me, but climbing gyms aren’t theme parks. You shouldn’t come into a climbing gym and expect an attendant to buckle you into your ride, lower a padded restraining bar over you, tell you to keep your hands and feet inside the car at all times, and monitor you on camera the entire time you’re there.
Some of this is shouting into the wind. The law and ethics don’t always go hand in hand. If they did we’d live in a different world. If the auto belay operator’s manual says the user needs to be supervised and this court determines that Vertical World wasn’t “supervising” this climber in this instance… Well, VW is out $1,000,000.
I’m writing this more as a plea to members of the climbing community moving forward. As the popularity of indoor climbing grows, we have a responsibility to band together and protect the character of our sport.
Climbing, whether on a 10-foot plastic wall or a 500-foot cliff, is about you going up against the wall. It doesn’t matter how hard you climb, whether you’re a gumby or a pro, a boulderer or a sport climber, or a chap who just wants to blow off steam after work every once and a while. It’s about personal drive, overcoming obstacles, using your brain and your body to progress up a vertical plane, and giving the middle finger to gravity.
There are ways you can mess up and hurt yourself, and you have to mitigate that risk. That’s what separates climbing from more traditional sports like running or swimming (and what makes it so much more rewarding, for many of us!).
As members of the climbing community we have an obligation, not only to ourselves but to all other climbers and gyms out there, to take responsibility for our own actions when we step into a gym. Lawsuits like this will spell doom for the climbing gym industry as we know it if they’re allowed to become the norm.
Do we want gym staff to have to come over and check our knots every time we tie in? Do we want supervisors trawling the mats in the bouldering area and around the rope walls, scanning for minuscule safety violations like lifeguards at a public pool (or perhaps more aptly, kindergarten teachers watching a class at recess?).
That’s not the kind of gym I ever want to climb at. But whether the climbing gyms of the future are set up with those systems in place isn’t up to the gyms. It’s up to us. If we force their hand, our gyms will have to go down that path, to save their asses from potential lawsuits like the one Vertical World is facing.
So let’s come together and take responsibility for our safety, gumbies and pros alike. I mean, hell, nothing that goes on in a climbing gym is that technically complicated, and all the resources you need to learn how to climb safely are online (almost everything you need to know to get started is right here on Gym Climber!). If you’re a newer climber, just make sure you do your research and understand proper safety practices before you come climbing, and don’t be afraid to ask questions if you have questions. That’s what gym staff is there for.
At the end of the day, your safety is your responsibility. Don’t rely on a gym to protect you from yourself.