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Justices decide golf ball injury case

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Taking a swing at an issue of first impression, the Indiana Supreme Court has ruled on a golf ball injury case and rejected the concept that a sporting event participant owes no duty of care to protect others from inherent risks of the sport in all situations.

Instead, the five justices had adopted the view that summary judgment is appropriate in those cases where a sports participant is acting within the range of ordinary behavior and whatever injury occurs isn’t because of unreasonable conduct.

The unanimous ruling came May 18 in the case of Cassie E. Pfenning v. Joseph E. Lineman, et. al., No. 27S02-1006-CV-331, from Grant County.

The case stems from an August 2006 golf outing Pfenning was attending with her grandfather. The grandfather, Jerry A. Jones, was participating in the golf scramble and left his granddaughter, and the teenager ended up driving a beverage cart around the course – a cart without a roof or windshield. At one point, golfer Joseph Lineman’s errant golf ball flew 70 yards from the tee and hit Pfenning, who was age 16 at the time, in the mouth, causing severe injuries to her teeth, mouth, and jaw. She sued the golfer who’d hit the ball, the bar that sponsored the event, the Elks country club that hosted the tournament, and her now-deceased grandfather who invited her to go along but hadn’t warned her of the potential dangers.

Grant Superior Judge Jeffrey Todd decided in favor of all the defendants before the scheduled trial, and on appeal a two-judge Indiana Court of Appeals majority upheld the trial court judge’s ruling, holding most significantly that no duty of care exists from one participant in a sports activity to another to prevent injuries resulting from inherent risks of the sport itself. The majority 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 Pfenning.

Only Judge James Kirsch dissented, agreeing that he would have granted summary judgment for Lineman but disagreeing with his colleagues on the other issues because the circumstances of the case led to some of the defendants having a duty.

The Supreme Court heard arguments last year and Justice Brent Dickson wrote this 23-page opinion, which the court said is aimed at clarifying a line of varying and inconsistent rationales from the intermediate appellate court through the years on this issue of sports’ participant duty of care. The justices turned to precedent from several other states that have addressed this issue and looked to those no-duty, reduced-duty, or combination approaches.

“As to judicial policy, however, we are in agreement with our colleagues on the Court of Appeals and many of the courts of our fellow states that strong public policy considerations favor the encouragement of participation in athletic activities and the discouragement of excessive litigation of claims by persons who suffer injuries from participants’ conduct,” Justice Dickson wrote. “Athletic activity by its nature involves strenuous and often inexact and imprecise physical activity that may somewhat increase the normal risks attendant to the activities of ordinary life outside the sports arena, but this does not render unreasonable the ordinary conduct involved in such sporting activities.”

Sound judicial policy can be achieved within Indiana’s existing framework of state statute and jurisprudence, the court determined. Specifically, the justices concluded that only in sports injury cases a limited new rule should apply acknowledging that reasonableness may be found by the court as a matter of law. This is an approach taken by the Arizona courts on this type of issue.

In this case, the court found that Lineman’s errant drive that hit Pfenning is clearly within the range of ordinary behavior of golfers and doesn’t establish a breach of duty required for a negligent action. Justices also found that nothing shows the Elks should have reasonably expected invitees on the golf course to not realize the danger of wayward golf shots, and so summary judgment was appropriate for the club. But the justices found that the grandfather and bar sponsor weren’t entitled to summary judgment and those liability questions warrant trial.

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  • Book 'm Dan O
    Now we must read our grandchildren their "rights" before we take them... Anywhere??? Big Macs kill we are told; therefore, Read 'em their rights before our kids sue us for endangering their children by buying them a burger. Book'm Dan O!

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  1. I grew up on a farm and live in the county and it's interesting that the big industrial farmers like Jeff Shoaf don't live next to their industrial operations...

  2. So that none are misinformed by my posting wihtout a non de plume here, please allow me to state that I am NOT an Indiana licensed attorney, although I am an Indiana resident approved to practice law and represent clients in Indiana's fed court of Nth Dist and before the 7th circuit. I remain licensed in KS, since 1996, no discipline. This must be clarified since the IN court records will reveal that I did sit for and pass the Indiana bar last February. Yet be not confused by the fact that I was so allowed to be tested .... I am not, to be clear in the service of my duty to be absolutely candid about this, I AM NOT a member of the Indiana bar, and might never be so licensed given my unrepented from errors of thought documented in this opinion, at fn2, which likely supports Mr Smith's initial post in this thread: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1592921.html

  3. When I served the State of Kansas as Deputy AG over Consumer Protection & Antitrust for four years, supervising 20 special agents and assistant attorneys general (back before the IBLE denied me the right to practice law in Indiana for not having the right stuff and pretty much crushed my legal career) we had a saying around the office: Resist the lure of the ring!!! It was a take off on Tolkiem, the idea that absolute power (I signed investigative subpoenas as a judge would in many other contexts, no need to show probable cause)could corrupt absolutely. We feared that we would overreach constitutional limits if not reminded, over and over, to be mindful to not do so. Our approach in so challenging one another was Madisonian, as the following quotes from the Father of our Constitution reveal: The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties. I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power. All men having power ought to be mistrusted. -- James Madison, Federalist Papers and other sources: http://www.constitution.org/jm/jm_quotes.htm RESIST THE LURE OF THE RING ALL YE WITH POLITICAL OR JUDICIAL POWER!

  4. My dear Mr Smith, I respect your opinions and much enjoy your posts here. We do differ on our view of the benefits and viability of the American Experiment in Ordered Liberty. While I do agree that it could be better, and that your points in criticism are well taken, Utopia does indeed mean nowhere. I think Madison, Jefferson, Adams and company got it about as good as it gets in a fallen post-Enlightenment social order. That said, a constitution only protects the citizens if it is followed. We currently have a bevy of public officials and judicial agents who believe that their subjectivism, their personal ideology, their elitist fears and concerns and cause celebs trump the constitutions of our forefathers. This is most troubling. More to follow in the next post on that subject.

  5. Yep I am not Bryan Brown. Bryan you appear to be a bigger believer in the Constitution than I am. Were I still a big believer then I might be using my real name like you. Personally, I am no longer a fan of secularism. I favor the confessional state. In religious mattes, it seems to me that social diversity is chaos and conflict, while uniformity is order and peace.... secularism has been imposed by America on other nations now by force and that has not exactly worked out very well.... I think the American historical experiment with disestablishmentarianism is withering on the vine before our eyes..... Since I do not know if that is OK for an officially licensed lawyer to say, I keep the nom de plume.

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