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Sullivan-Coughlin v. Palos Country Club

June 22, 2004


[6] Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County Nos. 01 L 12747 & 97 L 3898 Honorable Richard J. Elrod, Judge Presiding.

[7] The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Cahill

[8]  We are asked to review a jury verdict finding defendant Palos Country Club, Inc., negligent for an injury to plaintiff Diane Sullivan-Coughlin when a golf ball allegedly struck plaintiff in the head and caused her to fall out of a golf cart. We affirm.

[9]  Maria Shirley, plaintiff's sister, testified at trial that on May 14, 1995, she was golfing with plaintiff and other members of her family at defendant's golf course. Maria and plaintiff shared a golf cart. Once the group finished golfing, Maria drove plaintiff off the course near the ninth hole. As they neared the pro shop and cart return area, Maria heard "a whack." Maria looked over and saw plaintiff fall out of the cart like a "rag doll" and hit her head on the pavement. Maria believed the "whack" she heard was a golf ball hitting plaintiff's head. Maria did not see the golf ball.

[10]   Plaintiff testified she had no memory of the accident. Since the accident, plaintiff has had difficulty sleeping and uncontrollable muscle spasms. The injury also affected plaintiff's memory and coordination.

[11]   Dr. Eugene Blonsky testified plaintiff sustained two brain injuries: one on the back left side of the brain and the second on the front right side of the brain. Dr. Blonsky opined the injury to the back left side of plaintiff's head occurred first and was consistent with being struck by a golf ball.

[12]   Felix Lee testified he operated a barbeque pit near the pro shop where players would eat. Lee denied seeing golf balls land in the barbeque pit area. Although Lee heard that golf balls struck the pro shop on occasion, he never witnessed this. Lee denied saying the opposite to plaintiff's attorney and investigator.

[13]   David Szczecin, an attorney with plaintiff's counsel's firm, testified he spoke with Lee before trial. Lee told Szczecin that golf balls would land in the barbeque pit area as frequently as once a week. Lee also said golf balls would often strike the pro shop and cart return areas.

[14]   Joseph Mahr testified he was hired by plaintiff as a private investigator. Mahr interviewed Lee, who told Mahr that golf balls had "on occasion" bounced into the barbeque pit area.

[15]   Sue Sheanon testified she worked in the pro shop. Sheanon often heard golf balls hitting the roof of the pro shop but never saw a golf ball hit a person in the vicinity of the pro shop. On cross-examination, Sheanon said golf balls only seldom hit the roof of the pro shop.

[16]   Michael Robert Eiben testified as an expert in architecture and the Building Officials and Code Administrators' (BOCA) building code, a model building code adopted by the municipality where defendant's club was located. Over defendant's objection, Eiben opined that the area where plaintiff was injured was unsafe due to congestion, the number of golf-related activities and proximity to the golf course. Eiben based this opinion on his experience and training in architecture, as well as his knowledge of the BOCA code. Eiben believed defendant could have made the area safe by moving the pro shop, cart return and barbeque pit, areas were people congregate, farther from the course. Alternatively, Eiben said defendant could have constructed a 20-foot high barrier between the course and the congested areas. Eiben noted that, although defendant placed a fence near the course to offer some protection, the protection was minimal. On cross-examination, Eiben admitted he lacked experience in golf course design and architecture.

[17]   Michael John Hurdzan, a golf course architect and designer, testified on behalf of defendant and disagreed with Eiben's conclusion that the area of defendant's club where plaintiff was injured was dangerous. Hurdzan believed the probability that a golf ball caused plaintiff's accident was less than 1% and construction of a fence to catch golf balls would be superfluous. Hurdzan's opinion was premised on the assumption that golfers used aim when swinging.

[18]   Defendant also presented testimony from several physicians who disagreed with the cause and extent of injury advanced by plaintiff. Dr. James Massimillion testified he was plaintiff's emergency room physician. Plaintiff had a laceration on the back left side of her head and internal bleeding near the front part of the skull. Dr. Massimillion opined the injury to the back of plaintiff's head was made with such force as to cause the internal bleeding in the front of plaintiff's head. Dr. Massimillion believed that both of plaintiff's injuries were consistent with falling out of a golf cart onto pavement. Dr. Massimillion was not told plaintiff had been hit by a golf ball, nor did he think plaintiff's injuries were consistent with being hit by a golf ball.

[19]   Dr. Gaston G. Celesia, a neurologist, testified he examined plaintiff and did not find physical, cognitive or neurological abnormalities. Dr. Christopher Randolph, a clinical neuropsychologist, testified similarly.

[20]   Defendant was barred from presenting evidence of plaintiff's blood-alcohol level or the golf cart rental agreement through plaintiff's pretrial motions in limine. The trial court said it would revisit its ruling with respect to plaintiff's blood-alcohol level at trial and allow such evidence if defendant could ...

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