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August 2022

Landscape of Liability

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How Poor Golf Shots Could Find Clubs in a Financial Puzzle  

By Ronnie Miles

I’m sure we have all done it or at least witnessed one of our playing partners hit that long, high golf shot that goes everywhere but the golf course. Whether it's a hook or a slice, golfers are prone to hit that errant shot from time to time. So, when it hits a nearby property (home, business or automobile), who is responsible for the damages? The answer is as varied as the erratic flight of the golf ball.

The thoughts I wish to share with you are not to be considered a legal opinion. In some instances, there is legal precedence. Courts across the country have addressed this with very differing opinions. For many years it has been reasonably accepted that if the golf course was present before adjacent properties were developed, then the golf course was generally found not to be at fault.

But today, the landscape of liability has changed quite dramatically. We have all probably seen the latest headline out of the Boston area, “Family sues country club, wins nearly $5 million after too many golf balls damaged their house.” While the owner of the Country Club is appealing this decision, it is important to note in this case, the owner had an approved easement that included language that clearly communicated to the homeowners that golf balls may enter their property, and restricted the construction of backyard entertainment areas. NGCOA is assisting the owner in their appeal. Should this case be permitted to stand, then what does this mean to other golf course developments with similar easements?

Many of the cases being filed generally contain complaints of negligence, private nuisance and trespassing. In a similar case in Georgia, in a complaint charging nuisance and trespassing, the plaintiff claimed that over time the number of rounds increased, resulting in an increased number of errant balls hitting their home, thus claiming the increase exceeded the limits set forth in the easement. The court found in favor of the golf course as the easement was properly filed, and no limits were placed on the number of times an errant golf ball would enter a property. While protecting the golf course owner, an easement shall not relieve individual golfers using the golf course of any liability they may have for property damage areas.

So what happens when individuals hit an errant shot? Can they be held liable for damages? In a New York case, where two golfers were playing, their tee shots left the golf course, entered a highway, and hit an automobile. The driver of the vehicle filed charges claiming negligence against the two players. In the court's decision, they stated, “The plaintiffs here had a right of bodily security, and are entitled to be protected against being struck by the ball, and if that right has been violated, they may recover, albeit that interference did not result from knowing and willful conduct of defendants, so long as hitting the ball and causing harm was within the range of natural probability.” The court ruled in the favor of the defendants.

The takeaway here is that regardless of who is ultimately liable for damages related to the golf course or the golfer, the golf course owner, manager and any other person related to the incident are subject to being sued. Golf course owners should review their liability insurance policy to ensure it provides defense and coverage in the event of either personal injury and/or property damage claims resulting from errant golf shots. The most important step owners and operators should take to limit liability is to not ignore a complaint. Work with the homeowner and consider taking reasonable steps to mitigate the problem. If you have questions or need help with legal advice, NGCOA is here to assist you. You may reach me at rmiles@ngcoa.org.

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