Golf Course May Have Liability Over Hidden Danger

Dec 15, 2005

An Arkansas state appeals court has reversed a trial court, finding that the trial court erred when it granted summary judgment to a golf course, which had been sued by a golfer, who had fallen into an “uncovered and hidden valve hole” on the fairway.
Specifically, the court found that the trial court needs to determine whether the course’s maintenance procedures were sufficient in light of the facts that the hole was created by the course and not an obvious danger to the golfer.
The incident occurred in May of 2003 when Loretta Little was participating in a Memorial Day golf tournament at the Jonesboro Country Club Golf Course. On the 16th fairway, Little fell into an “uncovered and hidden valve hole.” Little alleged that the valve causing her injury was not covered at the time of injury, and that grass had grown over the surface area of the valve hole to the extent that it was completely obstructed from view. She sued, alleging that the club had breached its duty of ordinary care in maintaining the premises by “failing to conduct regular inspections, and thereby failing to discover, secure, and maintain the valve that created this dangerous condition.”
Last fall, the course moved for summary judgment, claiming that the superintendent of the club’s golf course had consistently inspected the course and its 120 valves and valve covers associated with the sprinkler system. The plaintiff countered that argument, offering supporting affidavits and deposition testimony that the hole was “covered by grass so that it could not be seen by an unsuspecting golfer.”
After reviewing the matter, the court granted summary judgment in favor of the club, spawning the present appeal. In its analysis, the court “explained the duty of care that a premises owner owes to invitees:
As follows in Restatement (Second) of Torts, § 343 (1965):
A possessor of land is subject to liability for physical harm caused to his invitees by a condition on the land if, but only if, he
(a) knows or by the exercise of reasonable care would discover the condition, and should realize that it involves an unreasonable risk of harm to such invitees, and
(b) should expect that they will not discover or realize the danger, or will fail to protect themselves against it, and
(c) fails to exercise reasonable care to protect them against the danger.”
“The basis for a premises owner’s liability under this rule is the superior knowledge of an unreasonable risk of harm of which the invitee, in the exercise of ordinary care, does not or should not know. Jenkins v. Hestand’s Grocery, Inc., 320 Ark. 485, 898 S.W.2d 30 (1995).”
The initial question is therefore whether the defect is so apparent that, through the use of ordinary care, the possessors should have discovered and corrected it. Gann, supra. Ordinary care means that the possessor must protect an invitee from dangers that could have been, or reasonably should have been, foreseen. Id.
“In the case at bar, there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the club, through the use of ordinary care, should have discovered that the valve cover was defective or missing. The Littles offered evidence to show that the valve hole into which Mrs. Little fell was not visible at the time of her injury, that it was covered by thick grass, and that it was supposed to be capped but was not. On the other hand, the club’s golf course superintendent stated that the area was mowed approximately four days before the incident; that the entire course was frequently inspected for potential hazards; that prior to Mrs. Little’s fall, he had never received information concerning a cracked valve cover or observed one anywhere on the course; and that he had inspected most of the course on the morning of May 29, 2000. It is also clear from the evidence, however, that the irrigation system had been in place since 1983 and that the valve covers required periodic maintenance and attention. Whether the club’s inspection and maintenance procedures were adequate in this case presents an issue of material fact for the trier-of-fact.
“In Jenkins, supra, the court upheld the trial court’s decision to grant summary judgment in favor of the appellee, a grocery store, and held that the store owner owed no duty to warn the appellant of any danger posed by an entrance ramp from the store’s parking lot. The court in Jenkins clearly distinguished between the duty owed with respect to ‘dangers that are obvious,’ such as the entrance ramp, and the duty owed with respect to hidden dangers, such as ‘traps, snares, or pitfalls.’ Id. The entrance ramp in Jenkins, being clearly visible and obvious to the appellant in that case, is easily distinguishable from the valve hole in this case. Here, there was evidence that the hole was covered in grass and was not visible at all.
“Finally, in McMullen v. New York, 199 A.D.2d 603, 604 N.Y.S.2d 335 (1993), the claimant sustained injuries after she stepped into a small hole, obscured by grass, on a golf course. However, in that case, the origin of the hole was not known and there was no evidence that the hole was created by any action of the owner of the golf course. Id. The court found that the claimant’s proof failed to establish that the hole existed for a sufficient length of time prior to the accident to permit the appellant’s employees, in the reasonable performance of their duties, to discover and remedy it. Id.
“Here, unlike in McMullen, the sprinkler system’s valve holes were created by the club, the club was clearly aware of the location of each hole containing a valve, and the club offered proof that it inspected each hole and was aware that each location required routine maintenance. The question of whether the club should have discovered the missing or defective valve cover during its routine inspection and maintenance procedures is one for the factfinder.”
Hardy Little And Loretta Little v. Jonesboro Country Club; Ct. App. Ark. D.1; CA05-179; 9/7/05


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