Fore! Ouch! If you are injured by an errant golf ball hitting you, can you sue? It depends. The best way to know your rights and options is to speak with a personal injury lawyer to see if you have got a chance.
Injuries from Golf Balls
Golf balls are small hard objects – much like giant bbs – often hit hard and “off course.”
When a stray golf balls hit people common injuries are:
- Concussion or traumatic brain injury (TBI)
- Soft tissue injuries
- Eye injuries
- Bone fractures
If you are hurt by an errant golf ball, seek medical treatment right away so you can get a proper diagnosis and begin treatment. Medical records also provide evidence of your injury and the medical expenses caused by the errant golf ball. Your personal injury attorney can review these records to help determine the value of your claim and prove your injuries.
Assumption of Risk
Like most states, California has adopted the “assumption of risk” law which is a defense to negligence claims. The general rule is that people who knowingly and deliberately engage in dangerous activities and many sports assume the risks inherent in those activities. For instance, a football player knows tackles can lead to knee injuries, so a tackled player usually cannot bring a successful negligence lawsuit against the player who tackled him.
Like most laws, the “assumption of risk” doctrine is subject to exceptions. Football players assume known risks inherent in the game but they cannot be expected to anticipate all risks and not all risks are inherent.
For example, if a player slips and injures a knee on defective artificial turf in a football stadium, the player may sue the stadium owner, the turf manufacturer, and/or the team responsible for its improper maintenance or manufacure. In that example, the risk does not concern a known danger inherent in a contact sport but arises from an unknown defect in a turf surface that players expect to be safe. Also the claims brought might not sound only in negligence.
Golf and the Assumption of Risk
Is golf an inherently dangerous sport? It certainly isn’t as dangerous as football or other contact sports. People who play those sports understand that collisions are a predictable part of the game. Golf is not a contact sport. Players rarely crash into each other, even while maneuvering their golf carts.
Still, the risk of being hit by an errant golf ball is part of the sport. Players might reasonably expect other golfers to refrain from hitting the ball toward them, but golf balls do not always travel in the direction that a golfer attends. In deciding that the assumption of risk doctrine applies to golf, the California Supreme Court held that there would be little sport in the sport of golf if every ball behaved as the golfer wished. Yes…judges know golf.
The court noted that golf is beneficial for players and the community. It described golf as a social event that brings people together. The court also suggested that “physical exercise in the fresh air with the smell of the pines and eucalyptus renews the spirit and refreshes the body” at least for those who can afford it.
The court worried that imposing liability upon golfers who make bad shots would discourage participation in the sport and thus deprive golfers and the community of golf’s many virtues. Accordingly, the court decided that golfers assume the risk of being hit by a misaimed golf ball and cannot usually sue a golfer who makes a bad shot even when the golf ball causes a serious injury or death.
Exceptions to Assuming the Risks of Golf
The court did, however, recognize exceptions to that general rule. First, if a golfer deliberately hits someone with a golf ball, the golfer can be held liable (as the “assumption of risk” doctrine does not protect against intentional torts).
Second, injured people may hold golfers responsible if they “engage in conduct that is so reckless as to be totally outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in the sport” (again removing the tort from the “negligence” standard). Hitting a ball that does not go where the golfer aimed will not meet that standard, but a court may find aiming a ball into a crowd of people, even when the golfer didn’t intend to hit someone in the crowd, constitutes extraordinarily reckless conduct. Since golfers are supposed to wait for other golfers to move out of range before striking the ball, hitting a drive while other golfers are still in the fairway might be considered reckless conduct in some fact patterns.
In yet another exception to the rule, a California appeals court decided a golfer who mistakenly hits someone with his golf club may be held liable for negligence. Being hit by a golf ball is an inherent risk of the sport that everyone appreciates, but being hit by a golf club is not.
Golfers may assume the risk of playing golf, but what about innocent bystanders? That question arose in a recent case before California’s Fourth District Court of Appeal. Miguel Leyva was walking along an unpaved recreational hiking path that runs parallel to a private golf course when a golf ball struck him in the eye. A line of trees and a six-foot fence shielded the path from the course.
Leyva had no warning that the golf ball was coming toward him or even that he was walking next to a golf course. Though he clearly assumed no risks, the court held that Leyva could not recover damages from the golf club. The club had granted an easement (the right to use its property) to the public for a nature trail. A California law protects property owners from injuries on public easements they have granted for recreational uses. That law shielded the golf club from liability under a separate legal theory.
What if Leyva had been walking on a city sidewalk? In that case, the golf club might have been liable if it should have known that its fence was not tall enough to protect the public from stray golf balls.
Each case turns on its own facts. The only way for an injured party to know whether they can hold someone responsible for an injury from a golf ball is to seek legal advice from a California personal injury firm.