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If you are injured after being hit by a golf ball, can you bring a lawsuit? As is true of many legal questions, the answer is: It depends.


Assumption of Risk

California, like most states, follows a rule of law known as “assumption of risk.” The general rule is that people who knowingly and deliberately engage in dangerous activities assume the risks that are inherent in those activities. A football player knows he might be tackled and understands that tackles can lead to knee injuries, so a player who is tackled can’t bring a successful lawsuit against the player who tackled him.

But like most legal rules, the “assumption of risk” doctrine is subject to exceptions. Football players assume known risks that are inherent in the game, but not all risks are known and not all risks are inherent. For example, if newly installed artificial turf in a football stadium is defective and a player slips and injures a knee because the turf comes apart at the seams, the player may be able to sue the stadium owner, the manufacturer of the turf, and the team that is responsible for its maintenance. In that example, the risk does not concern a known danger that is inherent in a contact sport, but arises from an unknown defect in a turf surface that players expect to be safe.


Golf and the Assumption of Risk

Is golf an inherently dangerous sport? It certainly isn’t as dangerous as football or other contact sports. Nor is it as dangerous as soccer or other fast-moving non-contact sports. Everyone who plays those sports understands that collisions are part of the game. But golf is sedate. 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.

The court noted that golf is beneficial for players and the community. It described golf as a social event that brings people together who share common interests. 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 legal 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 if the golf ball causes a serious injury.


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. Oddly, in a different case, the court held that a pitcher who deliberately throws a ball at a batter is not liable for causing an injury because throwing at batters is a time-honored tradition in baseball (albeit one that is against the rules) and thus an inherent risk of the sport.

Second, golfers can be held liable if they “engage in conduct that is so reckless as to be totally outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in the sport.” Hitting a ball that does not go where it is aimed will not meet that standard, but aiming a ball into a crowd of people, even when the golfer has no intent to hit someone in the crowd, might be considered extraordinarily reckless conduct. And 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 yet another exception to the rule, a California appellate court decided that a golfer who inadvertently hit someone with his club could 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.


Innocent Bystanders

Golfers may assume the risk of playing golf, but what about innocent bystanders who are not playing the game? 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 he was hit in the eye with a golf ball. The path is shielded from the course by a line of trees and a six-foot fence.

Leyva had no warning that he was about to be struck, or even that he was walking next to a golf course. He clearly assumed no risks, but 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 the purpose of a nature trail. A California law protects property owners from injuries that occur on public easements they have granted for recreational uses. That law shielded the golf club from liability.

But 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 for sure whether someone can be held responsible for an injury caused by a golf ball is to seek legal advice from a California personal injury firm.