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Judges split on duty owed to injured teen

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A majority on the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment for a golf course, golf scramble organizers, and golfer in a teenager's suit after she was hit with a golf ball. Today's decision also expanded language from a previous ruling involving the duty to prevent injury to sports participants to now include sporting event volunteers.

In Cassie E. Pfenning v. Joseph E. Lineman, Whitey's 31 Club, Inc., Marion Elks Country Club Lodge #195, and the Estate of Jerry A. Jones, No. 27A02-0905-CV-444, Judges Carr Darden and Melissa May affirmed summary judgment for the defendants in Cassie Pfenning's suit that the club, promoters, Joseph Lineman, and her grandfather Jerry Jones owed her a duty to protect her from injury; that Jones, Whitey's and the Elks were negligent in their supervision of her, and that the Elks and Whitey's breached a reasonable duty of reasonable care under premises liability. The trial court affirmed summary judgment for the defendants.

Pfenning was 16 years old when she attended the golf scramble with her grandfather to work a beverage golf cart. Jones ended up playing in the scramble, so he left Pfenning in the care of his sister. The two were in the golf cart without a roof or windshield when Lineman's golf ball flew more than 70 yards before hitting Pfenning in the mouth, causing severe injuries to her teeth, mouth, and jaw.

The majority focused on whether the defendants' owed a duty to Pfenning. The appellate court has previously held there is no duty from one participant in a sports activity to another to prevent injury resulting from inherent risk of the sport, and extended the definition of participants from Geiersbach v. Frieje, 807 N.E.2d 114 (Ind. Ct. App. 2004), to include not only players, coaches, or players on the bench during the game, but also sporting event volunteers. Because the majority considered her a participant in the golf scramble, which had inherent risks, they ruled the defendants didn't owe her a duty. They also failed to find Lineman reckless for his golf ball hitting Pfenninger.

Judges Darden and May also found no relationship between Pfenning and the Elks or Whitey's that would give rise to a duty under negligent entrustment theory, and that Jones didn't breach his duty to exercise ordinary care on behalf of his granddaughter.

"To hold otherwise would impose an unreasonable duty upon Jones to insure Pfenning's safety and 'guard against every possible hazard,'" wrote Judge Darden.

Because Pfenning didn't assert a third party's criminal act caused her injury, that the act was foreseeable, or that there had been similar prior incidents, the majority affirmed judgment for the Elks and Whitey's on her premises liability claims.

Judge James Kirsch agreed that Lineman should be granted summary judgment, but disagreed with his colleagues on the other issues because the circumstances of the case lead to some of the defendants having a duty.

Judge Kirsch believed Pfenning was on the Elks' property as a business invitee, so it had a duty of due care. Pfenning acted as an unpaid agent of Whitey's, so the relationship weighs in favor of an imposition of duty. Judge Kirsch also ruled her grandfather owed a duty of reasonable care to Pfenning because she was entrusted into his care during the tournament.

"Had Pfenning been riding in the beverage cart with her grandfather when she was struck with the errant ball, I might well agree with my colleagues that she was a participant in the outing because her mother consented to the inherent risks of golf to which the grandfather exposed her. But that is not the case we have," he wrote.

Judge Kirsch also declined to extend the ruling in Geiersbach to include the facts of this case.

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