Imagine you’re in beautiful Napa Valley on an early July morning, taking a golf lesson from the instructor at a private golf course. As you prepare to take a shot on the fairway of the fifth hole, a swarm of yellow jackets suddenly attacks you. Worse yet, when you try and run from them they follow you for 150 yards before deciding to leave you alone. But the damage is done: you have been stung more than 50 times, and on the way to the hospital you start to lose consciousness. Luckily, you survive the attack, but not before spending the night in the intensive care unit, being out of work for five weeks, and being told by a paramedic on scene you were “within fifteen seconds” of dying.
Unfortunately, this ordeal was not a hypothetical. Rather, these are the facts recited in Staats v. Vintner’s Golf Club, LLC, a recent California Court of Appeal decision involving Carolyn Staats, a golfer taking a lesson at the Vintner’s Golf Club in Yountville in July of 2013.
After the incident, Staats sued the golf club for negligence and premises liability. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the golf club, ruling it had no duty to protect golfers from yellow jackets because it had no prior knowledge of swarming yellow jackets, or of yellow jacket nests, on its course.
Staats appealed, arguing that just because the golf club did not have prior knowledge of yellow jackets on the course, it was reasonably foreseeable they could be a problem. Staats submitted expert testimony from an entomologist that yellow jackets are common throughout Northern California, and that it was “eminently foreseeable” that they would nest in gopher holes, ground squirrel holes, and rabbit burrows on golf courses.
For its part, on appeal the golf club did not deny it owed golfers like Staats a duty to maintain the course in a reasonably safe condition, but argued the scope of its duty did not extend to keeping patrons safe from yellow jackets because it had no prior knowledge of yellow jackets on the course and hadn’t previously had a problem with them.
In siding with Staats, the Court of Appeal found the golf club’s duty was not limited by the particular facts of the case (namely, whether Staats’ injury was reasonably foreseeable in light of the golf club’s actions and/or inactions such as not regularly inspecting the course for yellow jacket nests) but rather the club’s duty was more general in nature. The court held the club’s duty was based on the broader question of whether it was reasonably foreseeable that yellow jackets would nest on the golf course grounds and pose a danger to any patron. Thus, the Court found, “the fortuitous absence of prior injury does not justify relieving a defendant from responsibility for the foreseeable consequences of its acts.”
The Court of Appeal then remanded the case to the trial court to determine factually whether the golf club had met its duty of reasonable care under the broader standard outlined in the opinion.