The news this week that a California man was killed by an errant golf shot makes you shudder.
And then it makes you wonder.
If you play enough, you might have been hit by an errant shot, or had a close call. Or you may have hit somebody with an errant shot, or caused some other kind of damage when you turned your golf ball into a dangerous little missile.
With literally millions of lamely guided missiles filling the air over golf courses every day in the United States, who is liable when injury or damage occurs? Or in these extreme cases, when death occurs?
Because let’s face it, most of us who play the game don’t know where our ball’s going half the time.
“One thing we know about the game is that golfers inherently stink,” says Matt Martin, an expert in liability in the golf industry for Addison Law in Dallas.
Even the best players in the world hit lousy shots. A few years back, Phil Mickelson broke a man’s wristwatch with a bad shot at the CA Championship at Doral and handed the man a wad of cash so he could buy a new one. Mickelson felt responsible, but, legally, was he?
According to KABC-TV in Los Angeles, Hiroshi Tango, 69, was hit in the back of the head earlier this month by a playing partner’s errant shot after Tango walked ahead of his partner as they played the ninth hole of the Los Serranos Country Club in Chino, Calif. The TV station interviewed a course marshal, who said Tango had walked ahead about 20 yards, left of the ninth fairway, when Tango’s playing partner pulled his shot. The ball hit Tango in the back of the head.
Tango was air lifted to a nearby hospital, where he died nine days later.
The tragedy raises a number of questions, including the question of liability, both legal and ethical.
Generally, says Rick Woulfe, an attorney at Bunnell Woulfe in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a golfer is not legally responsible for damage his errant shot caused if he’s acting in a manner most people would deem reasonable and he hits a bad shot.
“The standard is simply negligence,” said Woulfe, a decorated amateur golfer. “It’s not that different from cars colliding in the street. Sometimes, accidents are accidents. Sometimes, somebody is negligent.”
Negligence, Woulfe said, is defined as the failure to exercise reasonable care.
Four years ago, the Hawaiian Supreme Court upheld a lower court's ruling that a golfer may not be held liable for unintentionally hitting another golfer with an errant shot. The lower court dismissed Ryan Yoneda's lawsuit against Andrew Tom, whose errant shot hit Yoneda in the left eye.
Chief Justice Ronald Moon wrote that it's “common knowledge that not every shot played by a golfer goes exactly where he intends it to go.” The court specified that a golfer who intentionally hits a ball to inflict injury, or recklessly hits a ball knowing injury is likely, is not protected.
Martin said the difficulty in mastering the game of golf factors into the application of law.
“There’s an assumption of risk doctrine, the same law that applies if somebody’s sitting in a baseball stadium and gets hit by a line drive,” Martin said. “One of the risks of being out on the golf course is that you might get hit.”
If you’re going to sue somebody because they injured you or damaged your property with an errant shot, you are probably going to have to prove negligence on the part of the player who hit the errant shot.
“It's absolutely not a black-and-white issue,” Martin said.
Negligence can be a simple thing. While you might believe yelling “fore” after hitting an errant shot is a common courtesy in golf, Martin will tell you it’s become more. He’ll tell you it can be a legal defense.
“There are one or two cases where a golfer did not yell fore, and the courts held the golfer was negligent for not doing so,” Martin said.
Tango isn’t the first person to die after being hit by a golf ball.
Five years ago, a golf course marshal named Dale Parlin at Lake Arlington Golf Course in Arlington, Texas, died of a cerebral hemorrhage after being hit in the head by an errant shot. Sadly, his 31-year-old son hit the shot. Parlin was 150 yards from the tee box taking cover in a stand of trees when his son hooked a shot that ricocheted off the trees.
In 1986, Jane Perkins, 62, of Warren, Mich., died after she was hit in the head by an errant shot by her husband, a retired automobile engineer. She was seated in a golf cart left of the teeing area when hit.
While golfers may be spared legal liability for injury or damage they cause, there’s another question players must wrestle with. Do they feel ethically accountable? It’s a different question. Golf, after all, is supposed to be a game that aspires to something higher, a game with honorable traditions. Does honor dictate something different than the law dictates? That’s a question for philosophers to ponder.
Woulfe says he once watched a playing partner hit a shot through a small window of the front door of someone's home. Woulfe said the man left a note on the door saying he was sorry and that the homeowner should call him.
While Woulfe’s playing partner probably could have avoided legal responsibility for breaking the window, he made himself responsible anyway. Golf’s a complicated game, especially when our shots go astray, and so many of them do.