The Ball Is In Your Court: Hazards in non-activity areas

April 07, 2011

Katharine M. Nohr, Esq.
Nohr Sports Risk Management, LLC

Sports and recreation facilities are challenged not only with making sure that their sports and activities are operated safely, but also that all public areas, including parking lots, pathways and stairs are free of hazards. This is not an easy task when weather and foliage combine to litter the ground with leaves, pine cones, seeds, branches (and snow!) that patrons can slip or trip on.

If your organization chooses to neglect these issues, you may find yourselves with a hefty damages award and lengthy litigation as a tennis club did in Augusta Country Club, Inc. v. Blake, 230 Ga.App. 650, 634 S.E.2d 812 (2006). The problem that Augusta Country Club battled with was its magnolia trees, which caused a considerable maintenance challenge, because of the constant shedding of leaves and seed pods during the fall. The tennis director sought to have the trees removed, but club members essentially threatened to fire him if he ‘touched’ the trees. The tennis director compromised and implemented the following procedure of seed pod removal and control:

  1. Employees used blowers on the walkways each morning between 8:30am and 9:00am.
  2. The tennis director inspected the walkways each morning to make sure that the removal of Magnolia seeds and pods was done properly.

The evidence that was presented at trial was that the procedure set forth above was not followed. The inspections were not done every day. Additionally, it was established that the sidewalks, even when blown in the morning, were not blown again until noon even when the seed pods were constantly falling onto the ground.

The incident that led to the lawsuit in question arose when Plaintiff Linda Blake was visiting the Club for the first time in order to compete in a tennis match. She was walking on a pathway towards the tennis courts before 9:00 a.m. She walked under a magnolia tree and then down two steps, slipping on a magnolia seed pod on the base of the second step. Plaintiff fell, causing serious injury.

The evidence established that on the day of the incident, the employee that was in charge of blowing the walkway was dealing with an urgent pipe burst repair and so did not do so. The tennis director was not at work that day. The assistant supervisor arrived at the Club at 8:30am, and did not complete an inspection of the grounds. Witnesses testified that he walkway was littered with seed pods, leaves, branches and other debris on the morning in question.

The court determined that the Club did not have a reasonable inspection procedure. Even if it did, it was not followed on the morning in question. The jury concluded that the seed pod was present overnight and that the Club had constructive notice of the hazard.

The court considered whether the Club, in light of the circumstances, was negligent by failing to remove the accumulated magnolia seed pods of which it had knowledge. The evidence supported the Club’s negligence and the appellate court concluded that the Plaintiff herself was not negligent. Plaintiff was awarded $78,000 in compensatory damages.

The steps that you may wish to follow in light of this decision are as follows:

  1. Inspect your premises to determine whether you have any problems with foliage that could cause a slipping or tripping hazard.
  2. If so, consider whether to remove the source of the problem or whether to institute a cleaning and inspection schedule.
  3. If you institute a cleaning and inspection schedule, make sure that it is communicated and understood by those involved.
  4. Implement the cleaning and inspection plan and follow up regularly to make sure that it is consistently complied with.
  5. Alter the schedule as needed according to the time of year.
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