The Masters tournament may be over, but golf is still in the news here in the Deep South. An Ohio man, Jim Wiencek, has settled his suit against the Ocean Creek Golf Club in Fripp Island, South Carolina arising out of an alligator attack. According to the complaint in the matter, 80-year old Wiencek reached down to pick up his golf ball near a small lagoon on the 11th hole of the course when a gator emerged from the water and ripped off his right arm. The course allegedly did not warn him of the presence of the gator. Thereupon, Wiencek sued Fripp Island Resort and its affiliates, and, as noted above, recently settled his claims for an undisclosed amount. The case is captioned Wiencek v. Fripp Island Resort, Inc, et al., No. 9:11-cv-127-MBS (D.S.C. 2011).
The accident obviously resulted in a horrific injury. Fripp’s liability, however, was questionable. Typically, property owners are not liable for wild animal attacks. But, the plaintiff contended this case was different in that Fripp was on notice of the gator’s presence and failed to warn others or take any measures to assure their safety. There apparently is no known precedent on the duty of golf courses to warn of the presence of alligators. Because the case settled prior to trial, we still do not know how the courts would handle the situation.
Whatever the case, we believe golfers should bear at least some of the responsibility in this situation. Even without warning signs, we would like to think golfers are aware of the presence of alligators in every pool of murky water in the low country. The fact that the dark and brackish condition of the water obscured visibility should be a sign that gators could be near. We recognize that the plaintiff is from the gator-free land of Ohio, but it doesn’t take an episode of Swamp People to be aware of an alligator habitat. The plaintiff was an avid golfer, playing on many of the world’s top courses, so we assume this wasn’t his first rodeo on the Carolina coastline.
To be fair, this case is not a situation in which the golfer attempted to retrieve his ball from the brackish water. The gator actually emerged from the water to initiate the attack. Nonetheless, Wiencek could have assumed the risk of an alligator encounter by going near the water. Admittedly, we here at Abnormal Use have the benefit of living in South Carolina. With that comes the knowledge of the local rule that any ball hit near the water garners a free drop in the fairway.