Lansdowne Resort has agreed to pay $7.5 million to a 45-year-old golfer who was permanently injured when he was hit on the neck by a stray golf ball while practicing on the putting green before a charity tournament.
James Tobin suffered a massive stroke 11 weeks after he was struck in April 1998 and now uses a wheelchair to get around. His lawyers argued that the putting green was built too close to the driving range at the popular Loudoun County resort and posed a known safety threat.
"They knew it was a safety problem," said Tobin's attorney, William O. Snead III. "Every golfer who went on that putting green over a seven-year period was unknowingly exposed to a danger. They basically played a pretty high-risk game of roulette. It was never a question of if somebody was going to get hit, it was only a question of when and how bad."
Snead and his partner, Gary Mims, told a federal jury in U.S. District Court in Alexandria this week that the practice facility's design was flawed and dangerous and that resort officials knew of the problem.
Before they finished presenting their case, Lansdowne's attorney offered to settle for $7.5 million.
Gerard Dumont, general manager of Lansdowne, said in a statement that everyone at the resort is "deeply sympathetic and concerned" about Tobin's medical condition. But he called Snead's statement "irresponsible" and said there has been no determination that the practice facility was hazardous to guests or members.
"Similarly, there was never any determination that Mr. Tobin's unfortunate medical condition resulted from any action on the part of Lansdowne Resort," he said. "To this day, it has never been determined who hit the golf ball or from where the golf ball was hit that Mr. Tobin says struck him while on our putting green. No jury or judge determined the reason for his medical condition in this case."
Noting that this was the only reported incident in nine years of operation, Dumont said the course design is safe. When the resort was notified of Tobin's medical condition two years after he was hurt, golf experts were consulted and confirmed that the practice facility was properly designed, he said. However, at Lansdowne's request, he said, modifications were made, including closing the lower tier of the putting green, where Tobin said he was standing, and redirecting practice range balls away from the green.
Back home now in Charlotte, Tobin and his wife, Patty Sierra, who have two children, said they were angered to learn this week that the public could have been protected by simply putting netting in front of the practice green.
"It's devastated our family," said Patty Sierra, 47. "We've got to somehow pick up the pieces and move on with our lives."
"I don't care about the money," said her husband, who can no longer work to support his family. "I would just like to get my life back, which I can't."
On April 20, 1998, Tobin, then a national sales manager for General Electric Information Services, was at Lansdowne for a golf tournament his company was hosting. While he waited for the Jeff Bostic Celebrity Golf Tournament to get underway, Tobin was practicing his putting with some of his customers. Suddenly, a golf ball from the driving range about 130 yards away flew over the berms behind him, striking him on the left side of his neck and shoulders, his lawyers said.
"It felt like somebody hit me with a baseball bat," said Tobin, who was 42 at the time. "But I didn't pass out."
Worried that someone else might get hit, Tobin said, he picked up the golf ball and headed for the pro shop to report what had happened. "Oops," he said they told him.
Tobin's neck hurt, but he decided to go ahead and play 18 holes. Several weeks later, Tobin began having headaches, and he went to see his doctor. Tobin, who made no connection with what happened on the golf course, was diagnosed with "caffeine abuse," his lawyers said.
But his symptoms became progressively worse, and he went to the emergency room on July 7. After administering some tests, doctors determined that the golf ball that had struck Tobin 11 weeks earlier had damaged an artery in his neck, creating a clot that broke free and drifted to his brain.
Now, the man with a 2 handicap in golf uses a walker to reach a stool from which he is trying to relearn a game he loves, Snead said. Part of Tobin's brain was removed, affecting the former Catholic University athlete's ability to perform intellectual and physical activities, his lawyers said.
In sworn testimony, some resort employees said they were aware of the problem of golf balls being hit from the driving range to the practice green. When they were made aware of it, golfers on the driving range were simply asked if they would try to aim in a different direction, they said.
Occasionally, golf cart employees near the putting green would alert Kenneth A. French, a starter for the first tee during that time, to the problem, court papers say. Mims asked French what kind of messages he would receive from them over the radio.
"Well, to be candid," French said, " 'We're getting bombed.' You know: 'The missiles are coming in.' 'Somebody up there is hitting our way.' "
The golf pro at the time, William Bratton Steele Chandler III, agreed in his testimony that netting would have offered better protection than the verbal warning.
Asked if he knew why netting wasn't used, Chandler replied: "Not really. Not really. We, you know--I don't have an answer to that."
GOLF RESORT SETTLEMENT
Lansdowne Resort in Loudoun County has agreed to pay $7.5 million to a 45-year-old golfer who was severely and permanently injured two years ago when he was struck on the neck by a golf ball while practicing on the putting green before a charity tournament.
Lawyers for James Tobin, who suffered a massive stroke 11 weeks later and now uses a wheelchair to get around, argued that the putting green was built too close to the driving range and posed a known safety threat to golfers.
James Tobin was on the putting green. His lawyers claim three berms built in front of the two-tier putting green did not prevent Tobin from being struck by an errant shot -- only from realizing the potential danger.
A golf ball from the driving range about 130 yards away flew over the berms behind Tobin, striking him on the left side of his neck and shoulders.