With the warm weather finally here, many people have already begun flocking to the golf course. Even this calming and focused sport, however, is not without its legal liabilities. Errant golf balls are a common hazard and can result in serious personal injury to other golfers or off-course pedestrians.
Chris Richard, Managing Partner of Graves and Richard, a personal injury law firm serving St. Catharines and the Niagara Falls area, sat down with host Lee Sterry on a recent episode of Legal Matters and discussed court cases in which damages for personal injuries were sought against golfers or golf courses.
Liability of golfers
The liability of golfers for causing injury to other golfers or passing pedestrians by errant golf balls generally hinges on the question of whether he or she acted reasonably and called out a warning if necessary.
Golf balls unintentionally going astray is an ordinary risk involved in golf, and golfers may be presumed to consent to the ordinary risks of the sport. As a law firm in St. Catharines, we have encountered this scenario before. If a golfer engages in behavior that is not part of the natural risks to which a golfer could be said to have consented, however, that golfer cannot be said to have acted reasonably, and liability may follow.
In Bezanson v. Hayter, 2009 NSCA 113, for example, the court found that the defendant’s actions of taking a “Happy Gilmore” shot after he had already taken a tee shot and then a provisional second, was not among the “natural risks of golfing” to which the plaintiff could be said to have consented. The plaintiff and defendant were part of a group that went golfing as part of a wedding celebration. After consuming nine beers and half a pint of tequila, the plaintiff hit his ball into the trees, and then took a provisional shot onto the fairway. The plaintiff and the other golfers moved ahead of the defendant toward their balls, believing he was finished. The plaintiff heard “Heads up!” and turned to see the defendant doing a running “Happy Gilmore” type shot. The ball flew toward the plaintiff and hit him in the wrist causing him a serious injury.
The court found that the defendant breached the standard of care owed to other players on the course. After having taken his tee shot, then a provisional second shot, he was, or ought to have been, aware that the players ahead of him believed he was finished at the tee. The court wrote that the defendant’s “running whack, toward his partners ahead, deliberately abdicated control and was not an ordinary feature of the game”.
In Liang v. Allen, 2003 BCPC 95, the court found that the behavior of the defendant causing an errant ball that hit and injured the plaintiff was not outside the behavior expected of a reasonable golfer. The plaintiff was standing in a parking lot area immediately adjacent to the fairway of a golf course. The defendant golfer hit an errant shot, which went into the bushes, bounced off a tree, and hit the plaintiff in the mouth. He yelled “Fore!” in warning. On that particular hole, it was common for balls to go into the parking lot or across the road.
The court found that the defendant was not liable for the plaintiff’s damages because he had taken reasonable care to strike his ball correctly and yelled out in warning. Failing to hit a ball in the desired direction often happens in the game of golf, and does not necessarily constitute a case of actionable negligence. The court wrote: “No golfer wishes to hook a ball. [The plaintiff] aimed to the right of the hole and, if his stoke had been perfect, he would not have hit [the defendant]”.
In Matharu v. Nam, 2007 BCCA 268, the plaintiff was playing golf at the tenth hole of a golf course. While waiting at the tee-box, he was struck in the eye by an errant golf ball hit by the defendant who was playing at the 18th hole. The defendant intended to shoot the ball over a group of trees and have it land on the other side. Instead, he shot his ball into the trees, which came to hit the plaintiff on the other side. He did not yell “Fore!” in warning.
The court dismissed the plaintiff’s action against the defendant golfer. It held that while it is usual to call “Fore!” after a golfer loses sight of the ball, in this case, the defendant had no reason to make the warning call as the ball went on its planned trajectory. The court found that the evidence did not support the proposition that “Fore!” should have been called as soon as the defendant lost sight of the ball. The judge accepted the defendant’s evidence that he believed the ball was on the planned trajectory and would bypass the trees.
Liability of golf courses
Golf courses also may be responsible for damages for injuries caused by errant balls. The relevant issue is whether a golf course had met the standard of care imposed on it to take reasonable steps to ensure the safety of golfers in the area.
The court in Liang v. Allen, supra, discussed above, commented that the golf course may have been held to be responsible for the ball that struck and injured the plaintiff in the parking lot in both negligence and nuisance, but it was not a party to the action and had been given no opportunity to respond to the allegations.
In Hann v. Blomidon Golf Club,  N.J. No. 231 a golf course was held liable for the damage caused to the plaintiff’s windshield. The plaintiff’s windshield was shattered while her car was parked across the road from the defendant’s golf course. Although no one saw a golf ball hit the windshield, balls were often hit over the fence and into that parking lot.
Golfers not engaged in the ordinary playing of golf, including miss hit errant golf balls, may attract liability for damages resulting from the errant ball, and golf course operators may be held liable for nuisance or a negligent design.
Have You Suffered A Golfing Injury?
Should you experience an unfortunate injury on the golf course, speaking with a personal injury lawyer about the potential liability of another golfer or the course may be an important step in your recovery. Graves and Richard is one of the most experienced law firms in St. Catharines. Contact our team today to arrange your complimentary consultation and learn how we can help you.