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.