GolfBall-Car

My Golf Ball Hit a Car/House/Person: What Happens Next?

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.

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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.

Screen Shot 2014-04-14 at 7.57.30 PM*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.

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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.

Screen Shot 2014-04-14 at 7.55.35 PM*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.

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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.

Screen Shot 2014-04-14 at 8.16.47 PM*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.

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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.

Screen Shot 2014-04-14 at 8.26.10 PMAt this point, my research shows that this matter may or may not fall into either your Homeowners Policy or your Auto Policy.

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.

REFERENCES:

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.

Author’s Blog: Click Here

Enjoy more great articles and golf news from @LocalGolfer on Facebook and @LocalGolfer on Twitter.

 

  • Anabel Garcia

    I think if you hit a ball that hits a house or car you should pay, not because you are legally bound to, but because it is the right thing to do.

    • Jordan Spane

      As long as I don’t get caught I am not paying

      • Anabel Garcia

        Wow you must be an upstanding individual

        • Guest

          Anabel, Jordan,
          Thanks for the comments. It’s a dicey situation. Personal responsibility comes into play but then significant liabilities can be incurred with the admission/sorry and payment in the first place. I 100% get where you could feel you wanted to (or that you should) pay for a window, medical expenses, etc. However, after doing all the research, it almost always opens the person for further lawsuits in the very litigious society we live in. I hope it never happens to me, but if so, I’ll own up but will be very careful in what I say or offer and contact my insurance company and legal buddies as soon as I can. Thanks again.

          • Keith Cook

            Not sure what happened … Disqus logged me in as guest .. it was my comments above. Keith Cook.

  • Regis Forsworth

    I luckily have never hit a car, but I have hit a building before on the 8th hole at Timbers at Troy. From what I could see I didn’t see any damage, but I am sure the building gets hit pretty often. Is it my fault that the building is so close to the hole? I think not.

    • Keith Cook

      Regis, perfect example of where the golf course might be liable due to hole design … and in the end might (or should) have to make redesigns to the hole to compensate. Thanks for the comment.

  • Nick Sale

    Good thing to know next time I hit a ball in to someones house and they come out saying who is playing a Titlest with your initials on it…Not me 😉

  • Jacob

    I know this is late to the party, but great article, Keith. I’m actually an insurance adjuster who handles liability claims of this nature. It’s always a tough discussion to have. However, most homeowners policies have an additional coverage/extension of coverage built in that basically says that at an insured’s request, we can pay up to a certain amount for an incident in which an insured is NOT legally liable. The insurance company still specifies that the golfer is not at fault, but also offers to assist with damages to diffuse the situation.

  • Todd Hatch

    It becomes the golfer’s fault when knowing full well that he can’t hit a ball 260 yards to clear a pond, but tries anyway, again and again after the golf course receives complaints again and again, yet the course does NOTHING about it. No signs, no waivers, nothing. My house and vehicles get hit all the time. I bought a house on the golf course,but it wasn’t until technology and hitting the ball farther instead of straighter became the norm that I began getting balls into my house and my vehicles. Is it my fault that a majority of golfers that hit my house and my vehicles are irresponsible, I think not. They can choose to hit a more conservative shot with a more reliable club to hit the ball in play, but it has become a game of “Let’s see who can hit the ball over the pond” most of the time.

    • Joe Boto

      It’s good to hear a home owners point of view. Does your home owners association insurance protect you against this? Does the golf course cover any costs? Remember it usually is a mistake…

      • Todd Hatch

        I’ve played golf on the course behind the house and I can not remember once where the guy that put a driver in his hand was either “extremely capable”, or “extremely incapable, but wanted to try anyway”. 95% of the golfers that play the hole efficiently, hit a 5/4 iron off the tee and approach with an 8/7 iron. It’s 210 to the water and around 260 to clear it. Most approach shots before the pond are 150-160 yards. Excellent golfers and idiots hit drivers off the tee every day. Idiots hit the ball over my house, over the street, and into my neighbor across the street’s back yard…….50 yards off the golf course……..At least once or twice EVERY DAY. They would often hit towards the 3rd tee to the left, but what does the course do? They make OB on the left side. VERY easily, the course could extend the pond or plant one tree that takes the driver out of 90% of the idiots hands. It’s usually a mistake when a ball is hit OB into a house adjacent to a GC. It’s carelessness when they know people have children, vehicles, and property that is constantly being damaged, and they do it anyway. People have been hit. I’ve seen a group tee off, hit 4-5 balls OB into my yard and my neighbor, then jump across on the green by the tee so that they don’t have to come by my house. It’s extremely frustrating. I might begin getting the ball, putting it back in the fairway behind the house, and hitting a 5 iron back to the tee box. Maybe they’ll get the point then. We don’t have an HOA for the subdivision.

        • Keith Cook

          Todd, we’ve just recently had an upturn in this article’s popularity again. As the author, I did a good deal of research and really appreciate your point of view. Your situation is interesting, because it does seem the design of the hole (golf course’s responsibility) comes into question. I can tell you of a similar story in San Antonio, Texas on a course where a homeowner sued the course and had a hole shut down for over 1-year during the litigation. His home was on the right inside corner of a dogleg right par 4 – which was driveable if you hit it over his home. As you can guess, his home was pelted constantly and it created a very dangerous situation for him and his family. In the end, the homeowner won the case, the hole was completely redesigned (dropped the tee box back almost 100-yards to the right) to where the homeowner’s home was no longer in danger or in play. I just wanted to share the story with you, because it does sound through your description that the hole’s design is a problem – and perhaps a danger. Thank you once again for your viewpoint and your comment. Keith

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  • Mick G

    Here’s my PERSONAL experience with this in 2016. I live right by a golf course. My town has made them put netting up right across the street from my house. Nobody in my subdivision is bothered by it, it protects our houses. In the suburb 2 miles to the north there is a golf course where 99% who drive by on the same road do not even realize there is a golf course. I bought my house 21 years ago and didn’t realize there was a golf course in the next town until about 5 years ago. The entrance said “Bath and Tennis Club”. Last week on the 4th of July a golf ball shattered the back window of my 3 month old car. I filed a police report and the officer said he knew exactly where this happened because in his 12 years of being a cop in that town, this was easily the 100th report he made. He said that there is a hole where if you slice, the ball will fly right onto the road and possibly hit cars. The point is if he is one cop and has made 100+ reports, not many people even realize that there is even a golf course there and they cannot put up netting because the houses across the road are 2 million dollars and up and have actively fought the course about putting netting up who is at fault? Well I’ll tell you.
    The GOLF COURSE, since it’s public record that there have been over 600 reports of damage to vehicles. The golf course knows that if they change their course layout that they can minimalize this. They have a DUE DILLIGENCE to prevent damage to passer by. They tried to weasel out of it BUT when you have an attorney present them with public records that their course has caused 600 claims of damage to passing cars and they do nothing, it’s THEIR fault in the eyes of the law. I should be able to drive down a State Highway and not have to worry about flying objects coming from Private Property. The bill for cleaning and replacing a back window on a new Audi was almost $1000. $700 to replace the glass and $300 to clean up tens of thousands of small pieces of glass. Why should I claim it against my auto insurance when it’s their fault? I went over there, they tried to blow me off and then I sent my attorney. They paid for the damage to my car and the attorneys fee on the spot. They could have avoided the attorneys fee if they would have just paid the claim. I had a police report that stated that they were talked to by the PD on the 4th, I had an estimate from a reputable glass company on the 5th and there is no signage even mentioning that there is a course there.
    The important thing to think about is what if the golf ball struck a vehicles driver which led to a lethal head on collision? Do you think that for a minute that the people or estates of those who were hurt or killed are going to be like “Well the golf course said they weren’t at fault”. No, they are going sue and end up owning a golf course. Just because somebody denies responsibility doesn’t make it so.
    Remember that, I was blown off and an hour with an attorney changed the entire situation.

    • Keith Cook

      Mick, Thank you for your comment! Great to hear you were able to get fair and correct resolution for your situation and claim. As the author, I did a good deal of research and really appreciate your point of view. Your situation is interesting and very similar to another real world example I personally know about. In that case as well, the design of the hole (golf course’s responsibility) came into question. The course was in San Antonio, Texas and a homeowner (who lived on the course) sued the course and had a hole shut down for over 1-year during the litigation. His home was on the right inside corner of a dogleg right par 4 – which was driveable if you hit it over his home. As you can guess, his home was pelted constantly and it created a very dangerous situation for him and his family. In the end, the homeowner won the case, and the hole was completely redesigned (dropped the tee box back almost 100-yards to the right) to where the homeowner’s home was no longer in danger or in play. I just wanted to share the story with you, because it does sound through your description that the hole’s design is a problem – and perhaps a danger to the public. It seems the course would be mandated to either close the hole in question or redesign it to ensure public safety and limit financial liability to the course itself. Thank you once again for taking the time to share your viewpoint and your comments. Keith Cook