When Lightning Strikes a Golfer, Is the Course Responsible?
The caddie master learned of lightning in the area and set off in a cart with the club pro to get players off the course. Suddenly there was a burst of flames behind the players. Who is liable for their injuries? You be the judge.
The sky above the Atlantic City Country Club was overcast and misty, but that didn’t stop Spencer Van Maussner and his friends—Michael McHugh, Robert Dusz and Peter Costanzo—from playing golf. The four prided themselves on hitting the links throughout the year, regardless of the weather. So despite predictions of rain or snow on that March morning in 1993, they met on the green around 7:30 anyway.
Before sending them onto the course, the club’s management checked the National Weather Service’s forecast. There were no warnings of lightning, the club’s main concern. At about 8, while it was drizzling, the club’s starter told Maussner and his friends to play.
The group began on the back nine. As they played the 10th and 11th holes, the drizzle turned into a downpour. By the 12th hole, the rain had subsided. After they hit their drives, McHugh noticed a lightning bolt in the distance, and the friends decided to hurry back to the clubhouse. Maussner and Costanzo walked together and opened their umbrellas. McHugh and Dusz trailed about 15 yards behind.
At about the same time, the caddie master learned of lightning in the area and set off in a cart with the club pro to get players off the course. For about 40 years, the club had followed an evacuation plan of driving the course to warn players at the first sign of dangerous weather. One of the group’s two caddies suggested going to a nearby house for shelter, but the men decided against it.
Suddenly McHugh saw a burst of flames a foot and a half high leap from the ground behind Maussner’s legs. Maussner fell on his face and didn’t move. Seconds later, lightning ran up Costanzo’s legs, blowing keys and change out of his pockets and into the air, where a glowing halo of electricity circled them.
McHugh ran first to Costanzo, who had also been knocked to the ground. “It’s my legs, it’s my legs,” Costanzo moaned, but otherwise he seemed stable.
When McHugh went to Maussner, he saw holes in his friend’s pants that looked like giant cigarette ash marks, and smoke was coming from his singed legs. Rolling him over, McHugh could see that Maussner’s Gore-Tex suit was shredded in the back as if a bomb had hit it, and there were smoking holes in the right side of his shirt, sweater and jacket. The bolt of lightning had struck Maussner’s umbrella and shot down the metal handle into his body. It burned off the web of skin between his thumb and index finger, pierced his shoes and charred his feet.
Robert Dusz rushed to the clubhouse, about 300 yards away, while a caddie ran to the nearby police station for help. Meanwhile, McHugh, who had taken first-aid courses, determined that Maussner had no pulse and wasn’t breathing. McHugh also saw that Maussner’s jaw was locked. He knew his friend often chewed on a Tums tablet, so he gave him the Heimlich maneuver before he started CPR.
McHugh kept his eyes on the sky, watching the storm. The lightning was coming so fast, he felt like he was behind bars. He had to restart his friend’s heart three times before medics finally arrived and Maussner was rushed to the local hospital. The doctor gave Maussner a fifty-fifty chance of living. But he survived, spending more than 30 days in a special burn unit, where he received skin grafts and rehabilitation. He suffered lifelong nerve damage in both feet.
Maussner sued the Atlantic City Country Club, claiming it didn’t have proper safety procedures in place to protect patrons from lightning. The bolt that Maussner first spotted had been perhaps 15 miles away, and an expert witness reported that there was technology available at a reasonable price that could detect lightning up to 40 miles away.
He also said it was common practice for golf courses to provide lightning shelters in strategic places on the course and that the club should have had a siren to warn golfers.
Maussner further argued that the country club did not have signs posted about its evacuation plan, nor did it begin telling players to seek shelter at neighboring houses until after his accident. If the club had had proper precautions in place, Maussner said, he would not have suffered the injuries.
The club countered that it had taken reasonable measures to make the course safe for golfers. The staff had constantly monitored the weather. They had posted signs informing golfers they must respond when told to leave the course. The signs also said that the U.S. Golf Association urged golfers to react immediately to lightning by seeking shelter. There was no way that the club could have foreseen the exact place or time the lightning would strike—after all, the staff saw the lightning at the same time the golfers did.
Should the Atlantic City Country Club be held liable for Maussner’s accident? You Be the Judge.
Next: The Verdict »
A New Jersey trial court ruled the club didn’t have a legal duty to protect against acts of God and had no liability for Maussner’s injuries.
The judge noted that Maussner chose to walk across an open field when he could have sought shelter or lain down.
Maussner appealed to a higher court. The Superior Court of New Jersey said injuries through acts of God don’t exempt courses from liability. When a golf course takes steps to protect players from lightning strikes, it must implement safety precautions properly. It added that a jury should decide whether the club did so in the way it posted evacuation notices and monitored dangerous conditions, and if it should have built shelters and provided an audible signal. If a course uses a safety feature, “it owes a duty of reasonable care to its patrons to utilize it correctly,” said the court.
Facing liability for Maussner’s injuries, the Atlantic City Country Club decided to pay him a financial settlement rather than go to trial. Eventually Maussner made it back to the links with protective footwear—and an extra dose of caution.
Was justice served? Is the Country Club at fault for Maussner’s injuries? Sound off in the comments.