Get ready to take a swing at this golf course injury case! In Wellsfry v. Ocean Colony Partners, 2023 S.O.S. 1709, the court upheld the age-old doctrine of assumption of the risk, affirming the inherent dangers of teeing off. Despite a nasty trip on a tree root, the golfer was not entitled to recover for his injuries due to the primary assumption of the risk doctrine. This case sets a precedent for understanding the potential hazards of the sport and reinforces the importance of personal responsibility on the greens and potentially beyond.
Facts of the Case
Walter Wellsfry was playing golf on a course located in Half Moon Bay, California that was owned, maintained and operated by Ocean Colony Partners, LLC, dba Half Moon Bay Golf Links (OCP). Wellsfry parked his golf cart and walked to the tee box on the 14th hole. He played the hole and then walked down a sloped area back to his golf cart. While walking he suddenly felt a "searing pain" and fell into this golf cart. He reported that he had stepped on something, but did not know what it was at the time of the injury. He was unsure how exactly the injury occurred. Another golfer pointed out a tree root that had possibly caused the problem. Despite believing he had sprained his ankle, Wellsfry continued playing and reported his injury to the golf manager later that day.
Wellsfry filed a complaint against OCP alleging negligence and loss of consortium based on the injury he sustained at the Half Moon Bay course. Specifically, he alleged that he tripped on a root "concealed in the grass in reasonably close proximity to where a tree had been removed but the root had remained on the surface creating a hazard… the presence of the root as a hidden obstruction created a condition that was negligently maintained and dangerous with an unreasonable risk of harm to anyone who entered that area." Wellsfry also contended that OCP knew or should have known of the risk that the root posed and failed to take action to protect or even warn of the dangerous condition.
OCP answered with several affirmative defenses, including the primary assumption of the risk. The trial court found in favor of OCP and granted its motion for summary judgment. The trial court found that playing golf necessarily involved the inherent risk of tripping or other injuries, as golf courses often have trees and grassy areas that the golfers traverse during play. It also found that OCP did not increase any risk to players and did not fail to take reasonable steps to minimize the danger. Wellsfry appealed, but the court affirmed the decision of the lower court.
Primary Assumption of the Risk Doctrine
Assumption of the risk is an affirmative defense that defendants may raise in combatting an allegation of negligence by a plaintiff. A plaintiff who is found to have "assumed the risk" will be barred from recovering for any subsequent injury. Assumption of the risk particularly comes into play in discussions regarding recreational sports such as golf. "Under the assumption of risk doctrine, ordinarily a recreation provider owes no duty to a participant in an active sport to use due care to eliminate risks inherent in the sport." (American Golf Corp. v. Superior Court, 79 Cal.App.4th 30 (Cal. Ct. App. 2000).) “[P]articipation in an active sport is governed by primary assumption of risk, and a defendant owes no duty of care to protect a plaintiff against risks inherent in the sport.” (Staten v. Superior Court (1996) 45 Cal.App.4th 1628, 1635-1637.) “When the risks are inherent, the defendant does not have a ‘duty to protect the plaintiff from those risks [citation] or take steps to reduce those risks.’ ” (Fazio v. Fairbanks Ranch Country Club (2015) 233 Cal.App.4th 1053, 1058.)
Despite the overwhelming case law holding that active sports are governed by the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk, California courts have also found that defendants do owe some duty of protection to participants. "In any case in which the primary assumption of risk doctrine applies, the owners and operators of sports venues owe participants a duty not to act so as to increase the risk of injury over that inherent in the activity." (Mayes v. La Sierra University (2022) 73 Cal.App.5th 686, 697.) "Owners and operators of sports venues have a duty to take reasonable steps to protect their customers safety if they can do so without altering the nature of the sport." (Id.)
Golf Has Inherent Risks & Dangers
The Supreme Court of California has found that the primary assumption of the risk doctrine specifically applies to golf played in an outdoor course. (Shin v. Ahn (2007) 42 Cal.4th 482, 500.) The question in this case involved whether the inherent risks of playing golf include risks associated with the topographical features of the course. It is common knowledge for those who play the sport of golf that part of the challenge is the varied natural terrain of the playing area. In addition, each golf course prides itself in being unique and offering players its own type of obstacles and conditions as they play through the course. Golfers should reasonably expect to encounter "variations in ground surfaces." (American Golf, supra, 79 Cal.App.4th at 36.) "Golf courses are designed with both fixed and removable obstacles, to make play interesting and challenging." (Id.)
In this case, OCP's Director of Maintenance explained how the different kinds of grass used as well as other natural features "can and do regularly affect the golfers' experience." In Hahn v. Town of West Haverstraw w (2d Cir. 2014) 563 Fed. Appx. 75, 77, the court reasoned that a golf course, "established a significant portion of the challenge and atmosphere of golf and constitutes the interface between the golfer…and nature that is part of the gestalt of golf." Based on this reasoning, the Hahn court concluded that golfers assume the risk as to the topographical features of the course. This ruling speaks directly to the circumstances and facts of this case.
The Primary Assumption of the Risk Doctrine Bars Wellsfry's Claim
Based on established case law and long-standing legal doctrine, the court found that Wellsfry's claim was barred by the primary assumption of the risk doctrine. The inherent risk to golfers choosing to play golf on OCP's outdoor course included the possible risk of injury due to topographical features of the course. Wellsfry stepped or tripped on a tree root present on the course and was injured. The tree root was in the grassy area used by golfers to access the tee box on the 14th hole. OCP did not increase any risk of injury to Wellsfry or any other golfers playing on the course. Wellsfry was or should have been aware of the uneven nature of the grassy area and assumed the risk of falling or being injured while walking. The risk of tripping on a stone, branch, tree root, or some other natural object was not a hidden risk.
Wellsfry asserted that the tree root was not a "natural condition" because it was the remnant of a tree that had been removed and that the grass and dirt camouflaged its presence. He claimed there was no natural warning or reason for a golfer to suspect a dangerous condition of that type was present in that location. The court was not persuaded by these arguments and cited Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296. In Knight the court found that, "A particular plaintiff's subjective knowledge, awareness, or expectations as to the existence and scope of a defendant's duty of care is a legal question which depends on the nature of the sport or activity in question and on the parties' general relationship to the activity, and is an issue to be decided by the court, rather than the jury." (Id at 315.) If the defendant's actions or inaction did not breach a legal duty to the plaintiff, they will not be responsible for any injury.
Here, as an avid golfer, Wellsfry was aware that golf courses often consist of uneven ground and natural obstacles that may not be immediately visible. OCP clearly met its duty to provide regular and sufficient maintenance of the course up to par with industry standards. In fact, the superintendent of the course conducted daily inspections for any hazards and did not discover any tree roots that would pose a tripping hazard. In fact, the superintendent even searched the course after this incident and did not find the root that Wellsfry claimed caused his injury. All in all, the golf course was not required to warn or discover the small, inconspicuous root that tripped Wellsfry.
Therefore, the OCP successfully proved that the primary assumption of risk doctrine barred liability and the plaintiff's claim fails. The decision of the trial court is affirmed.
The Assumption of Risk Doctrine is a Compelling Defense Beyond Golf
The assumption of risk doctrine is one which has been used in many contexts beyond the golf greens. Courts throughout California have a long history of applying the assumption of risk doctrine to a wide range of cases in which the terrain played a role in causing the alleged injury, and in other unique and interesting contexts.
In O’Donoghue v. Bear Mountain Ski Resort, the Court of Appeals held that the assumption of risk doctrine precluded a claim by a skier who was injured after skiing into a ravine. (O’Donoghue v. Bear Mountain Ski Resort (1994) 30 Cal.App.4th 188.) In its opinion, the Court of Appeals for the Fourth District of California noted that “[s]kiing is an outdoor sport over mountainous terrain. Skiers can expect to encounter moguls on a ski run, … trees bordering a ski run, … snow-covered stumps, … and numerous other conditions or obstacles such as variations in terrain, changes in surface or sub-surface snow conditions, bare spots, other skiers, snow-making equipment, and myriad other hazards which must be considered inherent in the sport of skiing. (Id. at 193 [internal citations omitted]; citing to Knight v. Jewett, supra, 2 Cal.4th 296, 315-316; Danieley v. Goldmine Ski Associates, Inc. (1990) 218 Cal.App.2d 111; Wright v. Mt. Mansfield Lift (D.Vt.1951) 96 F.Supp. 786.) The Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment based on its application of the assumption of the risk doctrine.
The case of Foltz v. Johnson addressed the assumption of risk doctrine in the context of dirt bike riding. (Foltz v. Johnson (2017) 16 Cal.App.5th 647.) In Foltz, the Plaintiff was injured after falling off of her bike on a mountainous, sandy dune. Following Summary Judgment on the grounds of assumption of risk, the Court of Appeals held that “off-road riding involves the inherent risk that one will fall off or be thrown from one’s bike” and “off-road desert riding, both on and off trails, involves the inherent risk of falls due, at least in part, to slipping or becoming mired in sand and which may result in being thrown from one’s bike and suffering severe injury, even death. The injuries Foltz suffered participating in this sport or recreational activity are clearly an inherent risk of the activity in which she chose to engage.” (Id. at 657, internal citations omitted.) Thus, the Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment on the basis of assumption of the risk.
In Kalter v. Grand Circle Travel, the District Court, Central District of California granted summary judgment based on the doctrine of assumption of risk when a hiker was injured in a fall while hiking at the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu. (Kalter v. Grand Circle Travel (2009) 631 F.Supp.2d 1253.) In Kalter, the Court found that the Plaintiff was engaged in the activity of hiking on uneven terrain amongst ancient ruins, and held that “hiking across uneven and challenging natural terrain is an inherent risk of hiking to [the ancient ruins [at Machu Picchu], without which the general public would be substantially deprived of viewing the … phenomenon.” (Id. at 1257-1258, quoting and citing Andia v. Full Serv. Travel, No. 06–437, 2007 WL 4258634, at *5, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 88247, at *15 (S.D.Cal. Nov. 29, 2007).)
California Courts have also applied the assumption of risk doctrine to many varied and interesting contexts, including cases involving: a patron injured while fleeing from a chainsaw-wielding actor at a haunted house (Griffin v. The Haunted Hotel, Inc. (2015) 194 Cal.Rptr.3d 830); a bicyclist injured in a collision during an organized, long-distance bicycle ride on public highways involving hundreds of participants (Moser v. Ratinoff (2020) 130 Cal.Rptr.2d 198); a customer injured after striking her head on a white water raft’s metal frame during a white water rafting excursion (Ferrari v. Grand Canyon Dories (1995) 32 Cal.App.4th 248); and an experienced sailor getting injured when caught in the mainsail of a rented boat after an unexpected change in wind direction (Stimson v. Carlson (1992) 11 Cal.App.4th 1201, 1205).
The Wellsfry v. Ocean Colony Partners case is a compelling and interesting reminder in a long line of California cases that the assumption of risk doctrine is alive and well – and extends beyond the traditional contact-sport context. Wellsfry demonstrates that assumption of the risk is a highly effective defense in cases where the terrain and topographical features inherent in a sport or recreational activity cause injury, and it can be a complete bar to recovery.