• Golf Liability: Who's Responsible?
  • December 9, 2003 | Author: George K. DeHaven
  • Law Firm: Rivkin Radler LLP - Uniondale Office
  • You are out early, the sun is shining, and you have warmed up on the range and practice green. Out comes the Big Bertha and you confidently step up to your teed ball . . . swing . . . and you see your ball launched skyward, only to slice into a stand of trees separating your fairway from another. You hurry out to find your ball, cursing your poor luck, and come upon it in the next fairway lying next to the prone and unconscious body of another golfer. What happens if he decides to sue you for his injuries.

    Generally, a golfer preparing to drive a ball has no duty to warn persons who are not in the intended line of flight on another tee or fairway. The essence of liability for the injuries inflicted on another is the failure to take reasonable steps, where possible, to minimize the chance of harm. Thus, to establish responsibility to pay damages for the injuries sustained, there must be a recognizable risk and some basis for concluding that the harm flowing from it was reasonably preventable.

    The Courts recognize that even the best pro golfers cannot avoid the occasional "hook" or "slice," and the risk of a miss-hit golf shot is not a fully preventable occurrence. Even with the utmost concentration and the tedious preparation that often accompanies a golfer's shot, there is no guarantee that the ball will be hit onto the correct path. For that reason, the mere fact that a golf ball did not travel in the intended direction does not establish a viable negligence claim. A person injured by a miss-hit golf ball must establish that the golfer failed to exercise due care by proving, for example, that the golfer aimed so inaccurately as to unreasonably increase the risk of harm to others.

    Clearly, though the object of the game is to drive the ball as cleanly and directly as possible to the intended goal (the hole), the possibility that the ball will fly off in another direction is a risk inherent in the game. The onus on the golfer, therefore, is limited to taking reasonable precaution to protect those in the intended flight of the ball.

    The law, therefore, requires that if you observe another golfer, maintenance worker, or other person within the fairway and within the range of your shot, you had better make sure that they know you are hitting, or wait until they are out of range. If the ball fails to go where you want it to (and who among us mere mortals has not hit such a shot) golf etiquette may dictate that a warning be shouted, but the law does not. A poor shot, standing alone, is not sufficient to impose liability for the injuries sustained by the unfortunate recipient of the errant ball.

    Cases have also been brought by occupants of houses adjoining the course and motorists driving on roadways adjacent to them. Whatever the extent of the duty owed by a golfer to others in his immediate vicinity, that golfer ordinarily may not be held liable to individuals located entirely outside the boundaries of the golf course who happen to be hit by a stray, miss-hit ball. It has been suggested that one who deliberately decides to reside in the suburbs on very desirable lots adjoining golf clubs and thus receive the social benefit and other not inconsiderable advantages of country club surroundings must be assumed to have accepted the risks and annoyances that go along with it. With respect to motorists, it appears accepted by the Court that any warning the golfer could give would be ineffective to someone in a car, who likely could not hear nor timely react even if they had.

    So while your errant shot may cost you the match, it will not cost you the shirt off your back if it accidentally injures someone not in the line of fire.