In 2013, Carolyn Staats was taking a playing lesson at a golf course in Napa Valley, California, when she was attacked by a swarm of yellow jackets while preparing to take a shot on the fairway of the fifth hole. She was stung more than 50 times and paramedics said she was within 15 seconds of dying.
Staats spent a night in the intensive-care unit of a Napa hospital and missed more than five weeks of work. The attack left her highly allergic to yellow jacket stings and she now has to be given three injections per month and carry multiple epinephrine pens.
The California Court of Appeal’s recent ruling in Staats v. Vintner’s Golf Club, LLC, reversed an earlier decision by the trial court, holding that “the duty of golf course operators to maintain their property in a reasonably safe condition includes a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect patrons from nests of yellow jackets on the premises.”
The club apparently had no prior knowledge that there were yellow jackets nesting on the course, and, for that reason, the lower court had rejected Ms. Staats’ claim for damages, “finding that the Club ‘had no duty to protect against the risk in this case’ because of the Club’s ‘lack of knowledge’ of swarming yellow jackets or subterranean nests on the course.
On appeal, however, the lower court’s decision was overturned.
According to the Court of Appeal, “the relevant issue is whether the Club’s duty to keep its premises reasonably safe includes protecting patrons from yellow jacket nests.”
The Court of Appeal held that because “it is foreseeable that a yellow jacket nest on the grounds might pose a danger to patrons,” a duty was owed by the club to its golfers, even if there was no previous incident of yellow jacket swarming. The court also took note that, “we find it hard to believe that golf courses would have excessive difficulty procuring insurance coverage to cover injuries to their patrons from yellow jacket attacks.”
Having found that the club owed a duty to take steps to prevent yellow jacket attacks, the Court of Appeal sent the case back to the lower court to determine the remaining issues: “which actions the Club should have taken to minimize the risk (including the extent of reasonable inspections), whether the Club did take those actions, and whether any failure to do so proximately caused Staats’s injuries.”
Is Golf Cart Driver Liable for Running Down Playing Partner?
The Michigan Supreme Court has decided that the courts have no business deciding whether the use of carts is or is not part of the essence of golf.
And why, pray tell, is this important? Just ask Kenneth Bertin, who was injured when his playing partner plowed into him with a golf cart during a 2013 round, causing serious injuries.
Had Mr. Bertin been injured by a shanked shot, he would be hard pressed to recover for his injuries, since “shanking the ball [in golf] is a foreseeable and not uncommon occurrence.”
Being injured by a cart, however, presented a more difficult question, including the lack of any official rule referring to carts as inherent aspects of golf, and the “fact that there is no evidence in the instant case that the golf course where the accident occurred required the use of golf carts.”
If carts, unlike shanks, were deemed NOT to be an inherent part of the game of golf, then, under the law, Mr. Bertin could recover for injuries simply by showing that the cart driver was negligent, which appeared to be beyond dispute.
Bertin, who had been driving for most of the round, said he was struck by his playing partner after hitting a shot on the eighth hole. After falling to the ground, Bertin was hit a second time by the cart, which rolled over his right leg. The defendant testified that he hadn’t looked to see where Bertin was when he started driving, but thought he was behind the cart when it began accelerating. Bertin then stepped in front of the cart and was hit, the defendant testified.
While the Michigan Appellate Court found in favor of Bertin, saying risks related to golf carts aren’t inherent to the game of golf, the Michigan Supreme Court took a different approach. The Supreme Court felt that the Appellate Court had no business determining questions concerning whether carts were part of the essence of golf, calling it a philosophical decision.
The upshot of the Supreme Court’s decision was that the case needed to go back to the trial court, so that, based on the evidence, the court could determine whether Mr. Bertin “would, under the circumstances, have reasonably foreseen the risk of this particular injury.” If so, then Mr. Bertin would be denied recovery for his injuries because the cart driver, while negligent, was not reckless. And, if the evidence showed he could have foreseen being struck by a cart just as he could being struck by a shanked shot, he would be deprived of a right to recover for his injuries.
Can a Creditor Force a Private Club Member’s Resignation?
Obtaining a money judgment does not always readily turn into dollars. Sometimes, creditors must be determined, diligent and creative in finding assets that can be used to satisfy the judgment.
LSQ Funding Group, L.C. met this test in its efforts to monetize a substantial judgment it obtained against Daniel Werther, the CEO of sugar-free candy manufacturer Sorbee International and a member at the tony Bridge Golf Club on New York’s Long Island.
The private club’s membership documents provided that a resigning member would obtain a refund of his membership deposit.
So, LSQ Funding asked the court to judicially effect Mr. Werther’s resignation from the club, and that the proceeds that the club would otherwise pay to Mr. Werther be directed to LSQ in partial satisfaction of its judgment. The New York trial court agreed with LSQ that this was an authorized way for it to proceed and made clear that Mr. Werther’s cooperation in effecting the resignation would not be required.
Question: If the court’s opinion survives appeal, will it serve to open the flood gates for creditors to inject themselves into private clubs’ membership affairs? If so, look for clubs to tweak their membership documents to prevent such intrusions.
Erik is the Editorial Director for the NGF. Before joining the National Golf Foundation, he spent more than two decades with Bloomberg News, both as a writer and editor, with a focus on sports business and the golf industry. The New Jersey resident has also written about golf for outlets that include Forbes, LINKS and the Met Golfer.
Harris has practiced law since 1982, both in a private law firm environment, and as general counsel to two financial service entities. He’s also played golf since he was a youth and at one time was a member of the Haverford College golf team.
Harris says his crowning golf accomplishment was a victory in the Bridgeport Bar Association golf tournament, but also notes that was only because the perennial champion had opted to depart the practice of law in favor of a career as an investment banker.