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October 2018

California Court Stings Course Owners with Ruling

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By Steve Eubanks

Can golf course owners be held liable if a guest gets stung by an insect?

The California Court of Appeals seems to think so.

In early August, appellate judges overturned a lower court ruling in the case of Staats v. Vintner’s Golf Club LLC., which held that a woman could not sue a golf course for yellow jacket stings she received on the course. According to the appellate court, golf course owners are responsible for providing a reasonably safe environment, which could include protecting them from bee stings. 

It all started in July 2013 when Carolyn Staats was taking a playing lesson at Vintner’s Golf Club in Napa Valley. On the fifth hole, Staats stumbled onto a yellow jacket’s nest (usually an undetectable hole in the ground) and was stung more than 50 times. Paramedics were called and Staats was hospitalized for a time. According to numerous published reports, she came close to death and now carries a number of EpiPens for bee-sting allergies. 

Staats sued. The lower court threw out the case stating that the plaintiff (the owners of Vintner GC) could not reasonably rid an outdoor facility like a golf course of stinging insects. But this California Court of Appeals disagreed, writing: “the duty of golf course operators to maintain their property in a reasonably safe condition includes a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect patrons from nests of yellow jackets on the premises. The measures a golf course operator must take to satisfy this duty may vary, and we do not address whether the club breached its duty, or whether any such breach caused Staats’s injuries. Those questions involve unresolved issues of material fact that must be determined by the trier of fact in the first instance.” 
In the past, courts have drawn a distinction between negligence and nature. If a hotel has an active beehive and open windows, owners are obliged to inform guests of the bees. But in another case where a woman was thrown from her horse and seriously injured after the horse stepped on a nest of yellow jackets and was stung repeatedly, the owner of the riding path was not held liable because the area was huge and no one knew the insects were there. 

Arizona attorney Dev Sethi, who has tried several cases involving bee stings, said, “Bees are wild animals like snakes or elk on the highway, so just because you get a bee sting or even a swarm of bees on your property doesn’t automatically expose you to responsibility.”

This California ruling could change that and open up golf course owners to legal jeopardy. At the very least, liability insurance rates could be affected. Win or lose, having to fight a lawsuit in court is never cheap. Many course owners would be ruined by such a battle. 

“If you own a small house with an outbuilding, you’d better know exactly what’s going on on that smaller property,” Sethi said. “But if you own a golf course that’s hundreds, maybe thousands of acres, you’re going to be expected and able to know less about what’s going on in every nook and cranny.”

Unless that golf course is in California. Then, it seems, you’d better keep every bee at bay. 

Steve Eubanks is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and New York Times bestselling author.

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