FORE! FORE! . . . F O R E !!!
It’s smart to know the basics when that awkward moment comes your way.
It may not be the first thing golfers think about or even something they’ve ever thought about at all. However, golf and the potential legal liabilities associated with our great game should be something we all become a lot smarter about.
During the short golf season so far, I have personally witnessed two events, which got me thinking about the legal ramifications and aspects of our game in regards to:
- Personal liability and responsibility
- Golf course liability and responsibility
- Assumed risks of individuals (non-golfers) when we are on, near, or around golf course
The first of these events was seeing a golfer at a public course warming up by launching golf balls the opposite (and wrong) direction up the 9th hole of the course. I’ve seen this kind of thing in the past at other courses and this is no doubt dangerous and reckless behavior. However, does it also come with legal responsibilities and risks as well?
The second event was as a witness to the aftermath of a golf accident on the side of a road by a golf course. In this case, a car had been struck through the windshield by a golf ball and the windshield was shattered. Everyone was fine (except for the windshield) and a longtime friend and I wondered – and debated – what were the legal responsibilities in this case; to the golfer, to the course, and to the driver?
From these two events came the motivation to research and answer these questions.
SO, WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
So, the question on the table . . . Is a golfer financially liable if he/she hits a car, house, or another person with their golf ball during the round? Not surprisingly, the answer is not clear and clean . . . and also not without some debate. The real answer to the question is No, Maybe, and Yes.
*Importantly, it should be noted that within the United States, it comes down to individual state laws, which require burden of proof in establishing legal negligence. If negligence is proven, assigning appropriate liability under the law is the next step. But, first things first, let’s get back to the question at hand.
Is a golfer financially liable if he/she hits a car, house, or another person with their golf ball during the round? No, Maybe, and Yes.
ANSWER – NO
*No – The Golfer: Under general terms (and in past and recent state court decisions), the fact that a person or thing (house/car/etc.) is struck by a golf ball driven by a golfer, “does NOT (by itself) constitute proof of negligence on the part of the golfer who hit the ball. The golfer is only required to exercise what is called “ordinary care” for the safety of persons and property reasonably within the range of danger of being struck by the ball.”
Please keep in mind “ordinary care” may not fall within individual legal protections if a golfer, for example; aims a shot over a house (to cut a corner), hits onto a road purposely (to gain distance), hits into the group in front of them (to move them along), etc.
Also note that “ordinary care” under the law does not prevent the golfer from being sued no matter the intent at the time. There are many examples and legal precedents from my research where people and homeowners have sued individual golfers. In the end, many of the lawsuits could not prove “negligence” of the golfer because the golfer used “ordinary care” and didn’t intentionally create the shot that caused the damage. However, even though the outcome favored the golfer’s side in the majority of the cases, it still did not prevent the golfer from being sued in the first place.
*No – The Golf Course: Golf Courses are not normally held liable unless it can be shown that the design of the course, a hole within the course, or the condition/operation/layout of the course has caused an undue risk or condition. Courses sometimes display signs, warnings, etc. putting golfers on notice for their behavior. This does not transfer complete legal responsibility to the golfer but the statement may protect the course from lawsuits and actions if a golfer does not exercise “ordinary care” while playing golf on their property.
ANSWER – MAYBE
*Maybe – The Golfer: Golfers may be held liable if they are shown to have done something not within normal play and outside of “ordinary care.” Examples are hitting the wrong direction on a hole (my personal example from above), purposely hitting into another fairway to play the hole (i.e. the hole is not intended to be played that way in the layout or design) and other examples of this nature.
*Maybe – The Golf Course: Courses may be held liable if the design of a hole, condition of the course, or layout of the course is deemed to be unsafe, or can be determined to be so. In my personal example above (where the car was struck with a golf ball), I could reasonably see (as a non-lawyer type) where the design of the hole itself could cause an undue risk to drivers passing by due to the green being in very close proximation to the adjoining highway. Whereas the golfer may not be liable in this case if he/she exercised “ordinary care” hitting into the green, the course still could be seen as liable due to the design of the hole itself.
*Maybe – Individuals, Homeowners, Builders: I found it interesting in my research that in recent court cases, individuals, homeowners, and builders on, near, or around a golf course are in the maybe category as well because they have been shown to have accepted some of the inherent risk and legal responsibility of living on, near, or around a golf course.
I realize this is a tough pill to swallow for homeowners near golf courses who are routinely bothered by golf balls in their yards, golf balls hitting their homes, and sometimes breaking their windows. In my research, I found a great reference for homeowners, which covers the ins and outs of owning a home on or near a golf course (Reference #6 – GOLF.com).
However, please don’t think this “game on” for golfers to act aggressively in and around homes on a golf course. When a golfer cuts a corner by aiming at, over, or near a home, “ordinary care” comes into question. Also the design of the hole comes into question if it forces the golfer to aim along home lines for natural play, which brings the course design and the course’s liability into question.
There have been recent court cases where homeowners have sued golfers, golf courses, and homebuilders for damages based on their home’s location and the layout and design of the course. In my research, golf courses have been held liable on several occasions based on the design of the hole adjacent to the homes.
ANSWER – YES
*Yes – The Golfer: Golfers can be held liable if they purposely hit into a group (to move them along), hit the wrong direction on a hole (practicing or otherwise), hit over houses (to cut corners), and specifically exhibit behavior that is deemed to be unsafe and/or outside of the “ordinary care” standard. We have all probably seen this type of dangerous behavior on a course during our golfing careers. The next time we see it; we may want to point out the dangers – both legal and otherwise – to our golfing friends.
*Yes – The Golf Course: Golf Courses can be held liable “for injuries to a person struck by a golf ball if there was failure to exercise ordinary care to see that the course was maintained in a reasonably safe condition.” This involves how the course is laid out, its condition, its operation, and the number of incidents involving golf balls that hit cars, houses, or other people.
WHAT HAPPENS IF I AM FOUND LIABLE?
This is a very difficult and complicated question. In fact, so full of “ifs”, “buts”, and individual circumstances that as a golf writer, I can only share my research, as I have no professional experience or advice to offer on legal matters.
The key is to understand your options under both policies and consult with your Insurance Company and Legal Counsel as soon as possible after the incident. I would also recommend consulting with both your Insurance Company and Legal Counsel even if you think the incident was resolved at the time. My research shows many lawsuits were filed well after the parties split and had seemed to come to an amicable agreement with on-the-spot apologies and forgiveness.
WRAPPING IT UP
The next time you’re on a golf course and thinking about hitting it over a house to cut the corner, or thinking about hitting a shot into the group ahead, or even just acting a bit more aggressive than normal; take a moment and consider everything you may be bringing into play (literally and legally).
Exercise “ordinary care” in all shots and advise others to do the same as well.
*Disclaimer: Please understand the information in this article should in NO way be seen as legal advice and DOES NOT constitute legal advice. The article itself – and the information within – is a recount of information and research on this topic from credible sources and previously referenced legal precedence from these credible sources. If you unfortunately find yourself dealing with a matter like this, please consult with your Insurance Company and/or seek qualified Legal Counsel for appropriate assistance and professional advice.
1. Rulings likely spur a drop in errant golf balls suits but legal disputes remain, American Bar Association (ABA) Journal (December, 2010)
2. The Law of Errant Golf Balls, Professor Jan Laitos, Denver University Law (August, 2001)
3. “FORE”tunately, a little preparation goes a long way in reducing liability for errant golf balls, David B. White, Esq., BWH Golf Group, hosted on National Golf Course Owners Association (ngcoa.org) (2013)
4. Golf Courses: A Gold Mine for Lawsuits, New York Times (Dec 23, 2010)
5. Golfer off the hook in errant shot lawsuit, Chicago Tribune (Feb 25, 2011)
6. Cover Your Asset!, GOLF Magazine, GOLF.com (Apr 17, 2008)
Editor’s Note: What are your thoughts on a golfer’s responsibility if they hit an errant golf shot? What about the course’s? What about the non-golfer’s? Tell us your story or share a comment in the comments section. We would love to hear from you.
BIO: Keith Cook has been a writer and contributing editor at thelocalgolfer.com since 2013. Follow Keith @KeithCookWriter on Facebook or @_KeithCook on Twitter.
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