State Supreme Court Leaves Open Question of Whether Golf Course Was Liable

Jun 30, 2006

The Supreme Court of Hawaii has reversed, in part, a ruling of a state circuit court, finding that a plaintiff golfer, who was hit by a golf ball, demonstrated enough of a question about whether the design of the golf course contributed to the accident to withstand the golf course’s motion for summary judgment.
 
At the same time, the court also affirmed the summary judgment for the golfer, who hit the golf ball that struck the plaintiff, applying the assumption of risk doctrine.
 
The accident occurred on August 20, 1999, while plaintiff Ryan Yoneda was playing golf with his four companions at the Mililani Golf Course. After finishing play on the green of the 5th hole, the quintet drove their golf carts toward the tee on the 6th hole. The cart path between the green and tee circled around a restroom building and then became a straight-away leading to the tee.
 
The individual defendant, Andrew Tom, struck his golf ball intending to hit the green on the 5th hole. However, the ball bounded on to the cart path and struck Yoneda in the left eye as his golf cart emerged from behind the restroom building.
 
The high court noted that there was no warning given by Tom, who had testified “that, because the golf course’s design (i.e., carts being routed behind the restroom building) prevented him from seeing the cart, he did not yell any warning of the errant shot.”
 
Yoneda allegedly sustained serious personal injuries to his left eye, including permanent loss of peripheral vision, permanent pupil dilation, blurred vision, difficulty focusing, angel recision glaucoma, traumatic ecchymosis and retinal edema.
 
Yoneda sued alleging: (1) negligence, gross negligence, breach of express or implied warranties and/or strict liability (Count I); (2) premises liability (Count II); and (3) negligent failure “to provide safe rental carts for use on the premises as designed, maintained, and controlled” (Count III).
 
“The complaint was unclear as to whom the claims were asserted against,” noted the high court. “During his deposition, however, Yoneda admitted that his only claim against Tom was negligence in failing to make sure the landing area was clear before hitting the ball and in failing to give a warning of the errant shot.
 
“As to Sports Shinko, Yoneda alleged that Sports Shinko: (1) is strictly liable for the defective design of its golf course, which (a) required golfers, following the laid-out cart path, to face oncoming shots without adequate or reasonable protection and (b) prevented Tom from seeing anyone near or approaching the vicinity of his errant shot; (2) negligently failed to provide safe rental carts for use on the premises by failing to equip them with windshields; and (3) had a special relationship with Yoneda, as an invitee, and, thus, was required to take greater care by placing warning signs or safety netting to minimize the risk that golfers will be hit by golf balls.”
 
As the case progressed, Tom and Sports Shinko each filed a summary judgment motion, arguing that the assumption of risk doctrine “completely” barred Yoneda’s claims. Foronda v. Hawai`i International Boxing Club, 96 Hawai`i 51, 25 P.3d 826 (App. 2001), cert. denied, 96 Hawai`i 51, 25 P.3d 826 (2001).
 
Ultimately, the circuit court granted those motions, spawning the present appeal.
 
The Supreme Court noted that “the specific inquiries before this court are: (1) whether being hit by a golf ball is an inherent risk of recreational golf; and (2) whether the assumption of risk doctrine bars (a) Yoneda’s negligence claim against Tom and (b) Yoneda’s negligence, product liability, and breach of warranty claims against Sports Shinko so as to warrant summary judgment in favor of the defendants.”
 
After concluding that getting hit by a golf ball was an inherent risk of recreational golf, it turned to the question of whether Tom, as a co-participant, was liable.
 
“Tom’s errant shot was neither intentional nor reckless, and Tom had no duty to warn Yoneda of the errant ball,” it wrote. “Indeed, it is common knowledge that not every shot played by a golfer goes exactly where he intends it to go. … Accordingly, we hold that primary implied assumption of risk applies and that the circuit court did not err in applying the doctrine so as to bar Yoneda’s claim against Tom.”
 
Next, the court addressed whether the golf course owner/manager, Sports Shinko, was negligent.
 
Yoneda had argued that “If Sports Shinko exercised reasonable care and routed the cart path in front of the restroom, erected a safety netting, installed Plexiglas windshields on the carts, and/or placed warning signs for golfers headed to the 6th tee, the risk of [Yoneda] being hit by a golf ball and seriously injured would have been greatly minimized or eliminated. Their failure to exercise this reasonable care consequently increased the risk of being hit, nullifying the application of primary assumption of risk defense against [Yoneda’s] negligence claims.
 
“In essence, Yoneda urges this court to consider this case as one under the secondary assumption of risk doctrine because Sports Shinko owed a duty of care to Yoneda in the design and maintenance of its golf course and golf cart.
 
“Conversely, Sports Shinko maintains that Yoneda’s claims are barred by the doctrine of primary assumption of risk, arguing that there is no evidence that it increased the inherent risk of engaging in the sport.”
 
The Supreme Court reversed the lower court “because Yoneda raised at least one genuine issue of fact as to whether Sports Shinko increased the risk of being struck by errant shots by its golf course design, that is, by routing the cart path behind the restroom building.”
Ryan Yoneda v. Andrew Tom et al.; S.Ct.Haw.; NO. 26271; 4/28/06
 
Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiff) James Y. Agena and Scott E. Kubota of
Koshiba, Agena & Kubota. (for defendants) Lorrin A. Kau and Sidney K. Ayabe, Zale T.
Okazaki, and Steven L. Goto of Ayabe, Chong, Nishimoto, Sia & Nakamura.
 


 

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