Law review: Does a golfer assume the risk of tripping on a tree root near a tee box? (Opinion)

Jim Porter

I am not a golfer. I prefer to walk in nature without the angst of having to hit a little white ball while doing so. Thus, I loved this quote from the First Appellate District Court of Appeal: “Golf is a sport whose object is for players to use special clubs to hit a small ball over lengthy distances and ultimately into a hole in the ground surface.” From my non-golfing point of view, that says it all.

Well camouflaged tree root

Walter Wellsfry was playing on a golf course near the coastal bluffs in Half Moon Bay known as the “Old Course” which exemplified “the traditional American Parklands-style course, with the fairways flanked by several species of evergreen trees.”

Wellsfry walked from his cart to the tee box to the 14th hole, took a shot, and then walked down a gentle slope in the dirt, grass and sand area and tripped and fell on a well camouflaged tree root approximately 1.5 inches high by 1.5 inches wide or, as he later testified, “it may have been a little smaller.” The nearest tree was over 60 feet away.

What do you do when your perfect walk in the park is ruined by a small tree root? You sue of course.

Trial court found the golfer assumed the risk

The trial court found that “because stepping on a tree root in the area where Wellsfry was injured is a risk inherent in the sport of golf, [the golf course owner] could not be held liable for

negligence because it had not increased the risks to Wellsfry beyond the risks of injury inherent to playing golf. Wellsfry appealed.

Assumption of risk sports cases

As we all know participation in an active sport is governed by the primary assumption of risk doctrine and the defendant owes no duty to protect a plaintiff of risks inherent in the sport as long as they do not increase those risks. Cases include a player being struck by a carelessly hit golf ball; an injury due to a golfcart wheel striking a stone on a golfcart path; a golfer stepping into a depressed drainage grate; and a golfer whose cart rolled down the slope and injured her.

The sport of snow skiing is ripe with assumption of the risk defenses. Courts have written that those defenses include injuries from variations in terrain, surface or subsurface snow or ice conditions, bare spots, rocks, trees, and other forms of natural growth or debris. The risk of running into a lift tower is also assumed. I throw these ski cases in for the benefit of our local ski areas.

Court of Appeal decision

The court of appeal had no problem concluding that the primary assumption of risk doctrine bars Wellsfry’s lawsuit: “the inherent risks of playing golf on OCP’s outdoor course included the risks associated with the topographical features of the course – in this case stepping on a small inconspicuous tree root in the grassy area used by golfers to access the tee box for the fourteenth hole; OCP [course owner] did not increase the risk of injury beyond the inherent risks associated with the sport; and OCP did not fail to take reasonable steps to minimize the inherent risks that would not have altered the fundamental nature of the sport.”

That’s it folks. Walk in the park with your “special club” at your own risk.

Jim Porter is a retired attorney from the Porter Simon law firm. These are Jim’s personal opinions. Porter Simon has offices in Truckee, California and Reno, Nevada. Porter Simon’s practice areas include: real estate, development, construction, business, HOA’s, contracts, family law, personal injury, accidents, mediation and other transactional matters. Jim may be reached at Like us on Facebook. ©2023

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