A SHORT GUIDE TO GOLFER LIABILITY
I am a golfer. I play a fair amount of golf, and by “fair” I mean, less than I would like but more than my wife would like. It’s a compromise.
During a round of golf it is not unusual for me, or a playing partner, to hit a terrible shot. Or to want to hit into a group playing slowly ahead of us. Since I am a lawyer, it is common for a playing partner to ask about the liability of a golfer for hitting and injuring someone on or near a golf course.
Golfers of all abilities hit bad shots, even really bad shots. “As courts have uncontroversially noted, ‘[s]hanking the ball is a foreseeable and not uncommon occurrence in the game of golf. The same is true of hooking, slicing, pushing, or pulling a golf shot.’ And although they are far less dangerous (and less common), we would be remiss to forget about their friends topping, smothering, skying, and sclaffing –all of which have been known to rear their ugly heads and spoil a good round of golf.” ARTICLE: TORT LIABILITY FOR GOLF SHOTS: TIME TO REJECT THE RECKLESSNESS STANDARD AND RESPECT THE RULES OF GOLF, 9 DePaul J. Sports L. Contemp. Probs. 1 *
A golfer’s liability lies, not in hitting bad shots, but in his actions or inactions before and after the shot. Normally, compliance with the four safety rules contained within the formal Rules of Golf will absolve a golfer of liability for harm caused by an errant shot.
The Rules of Golf require golfers to engage in the following safety practices:
1) Players should ensure that no one is standing close by or in a position to be hit by the club, the ball or any stones, pebbles, twigs or the like when they make a stroke or practice swing.
2) Players should not play until the players in front of them are out of range.
3) Players should always alert greenstaff nearby or ahead when they are about to make a stroke that might endanger them.
4) If a player plays a ball in a direction where there is a danger of hitting someone, he should immediately shout a warning. The traditional word of warning in such situations is “fore.”
In the courts, under ordinary rules of negligence, a golfer, just like any person in other walks of life, has a duty to act with reasonable care under the circumstances. A golfer’s duty, with respect to potential damage caused by his ball, is a duty to timely and adequately warn others of the potential for harm.
This duty arises both before and after a golfer strikes his ball.
Before hitting, a golfer must make sure those in his zone of danger know he is about to hit. And he should give them an opportunity to get out of the zone of danger or otherwise prepare for the shot. A person in the zone of danger is any person who is in line, or so close to the intended line of flight of the ball that danger to them might be reasonably anticipated.
The majority rule in the negligence jurisprudence is that the foreseeable zone of danger is not merely confined to the intended line of flight, but instead “encompasses a wider zone of danger based on the facts and circumstances in each individual case.”
The worse a golfer plays, the greater the zone of danger will be. A bad golfer will have a wider zone of danger than his better playing partner would. While there are no express rules defining the zone of danger, one court has stated that anyone more than 90 degrees from the intended line of ball flight would not be within the zone of danger. Another court found that an injured observer more than 50 degrees from the target line was not within the zone of danger.
So before hitting the ball, a golfer must honestly assess his skill level, determine who is in his personal zone of danger, and then warn all persons within that zone that he is preparing to hit the ball.
Once a golfer hits the ball he has a duty to give a timely and adequate warning to anyone who has become endangered by the bad shot, even if they are outside previously-determined zone of danger. Shouting “FORE!” is the customary warning on the golf course, and is usually enough to absolve the golfer of liability. There are exceptions to this rule, like any other, but they are too fact specific to address here.
If a state uses a reckless standard rather than the negligence standard addressed above, a golfer is even less likely to be liable to someone else for an errant shot. In most states, courts do not impose legal liability on a participant in a sport for a violation of the sport’s rules, since doing so would invite a flood of litigation related to sports injuries and sports accidents. Some, but not all states apply this rule to golf. In those states a golfer will not be liable for his errant shot unless it is intentional, willful, wanton, or reckless. In other words, the golfer must take the swing or hit the shot in disregard of known or obvious risks which are so great as to make it highly probably harm will follow, and the golfer makes the shot with a conscious indifference to those consequences.
Whether the state employs the negligence standard or the reckless standard, a golfer who follows the safety rules of golf is unlikely to incur any legal liability for his poor performance. His score on the card should be the only harm that comes his way.