Springfield Business Journal Articles
Sarah Delano Pavlik and Tom Pavlik write a monthly column on legal and business issues for the Springfield Business Journal.

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Spring has finally arrived and after reading this month's Springfield Business Journal devoted to golf, you suddenly have a desire to play golf or watch a golf tournament in person. "What possible legal issues could that involve?" you ask. Actually, there are quite a few.

Suppose that during your round you are hit by another golfer's ball and you are seriously injured. Is the other golfer liable for your injuries? Is the owner of the course liable? As always, it depends.

In Illinois, a person is liable for injures caused by his golf ball if he was negligent in hitting the ball. In a 1997 case, an Illinois Appellate Court ruled, "We adopt the traditional 'zone of danger' analysis which has historically governed golf course injury cases. It is established that a golfer is only required to exercise ordinary care for the safety of persons reasonably within the range of danger of being struck by the ball." For Tiger Woods, the zone of danger may be long and narrow. For me, the zone of danger may be short and wide.

Therefore, a golfer is liable for negligence within the zone of danger. The negligence standard is used in golf course injuries because golf is not a contact sport. In contact sports such as football, softball and soccer, the legal standard is wanton and wilful misconduct because participants expect to come into contact with other players and equipment and that they could be injured. In contact sports cases "a player is liable for injury in a tort action if his conduct is such that it is either deliberate, wilful or with a reckless disregard for the safety of the other player so as to cause injury to that player." One court further explained, "Wilful and wanton misconduct is an aggravated form of negligence. It has been defined as an act done with disregard to a risk so obvious that the actor must be taken to have been aware of it and so great as to make it highly probable that harm would follow."

What determines whether a sport is a contact sport or a non-contact sport? An inherent risk that players may accidentally touch one another is not sufficient. Rather, contact must be an intended and expected part of the game. The Appellate Court stated, "In our view, golf is simply not the type of game in which participants are inherently, inevitably or customarily struck by the ball. ... There is never a need for players to touch one another."

Negligence must be determined by the facts of the case. Another Illinois Appellate Court faced with a golf injury case wisely stated, " We note that not every shot played by a golfer goes to the point where he intends it to go." Therefore, in taking your shot you cannot assume that it will only hit the middle of the fairway or the middle of the green.

The second question for the injured player is whether or not the owner of the golf course is liable for the injuries. This will depend to a large extent on whether the golf course is public or private. Governmental entities are generally exempt from liability for negligence under the Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act. Under the Act, public golf courses have been found not liable for the design of a golf course which included a "standing area" in front of and to the side of a tee box (the St. Charles Park District Pottawatomie Golf Course) and for failure "to establish procedures to keep participants in a safe area during tournament play" (Village Greens of Woodridge golf course).

If a claim is not barred by the Tort Immunity Act, "the test of liability in operating a golf course is determined to be whether the condition of such course unreasonably subjected the players to hazards over and above those commonly inherent in the game of golf." In one case, the court held that the course owner was not liable simply because the fairways were close together. In another case, a golf course owner was found not liable where a woman tripped over an exposed tree root because the tree root was a natural condition of the golf course.

The golf course owner can also be liable if a spectator is injured at a golf tournament. In 1973, a spectator was struck by a golf ball while attending the Western Open at the Midlothian Country Club near Chicago. The woman was standing at a concession stand that had been placed between two fairways when a ball struck her in the eye causing her to lose all sight in that eye. In overturning summary judgment in favor of the country club, the Appellate Court held that the country club could be responsible for the woman's injury.

So, as you hit the links, be aware of your zone of danger, yell "Fore!" and, when you don't have your eye on the ball, have it on the golfers behind you.
Posted in: May, 2003
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