Who is at Fault When an Accident Occurs on a Golf Course?

Scott Blumenshine

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The short answer to the question, “Who is responsible when a serious injury occurs on a golf course?” is: “It depends.” If a company or another person violated a safety rule or was careless and caused injury, they may be liable. It is also true that it might not be anyone’s fault unless the injured person can prove someone on the golf course, the owner and operator, or another entity was unsafely negligent.

In a 1997 Illinois appellate court decision, two golfers were playing together when the ball hit by one of them hit the other in the head. The injured golfer sued his friend for negligence. The defendant claimed that to collect, the plaintiff needed to prove that the defendant was not just negligent but had acted wanton and recklessly.

The appellate court comprehensively discussed the differences between non-contact sports, like golf, and contact sports, where contact with other players or a ball is part of the game. Those injured while playing a contact sport must prove that the one who caused the injury acted wanton and recklessly, which is an elevated form of negligence.

The court held that golf, on the other hand, is not a contact sport because “There is never a need for players to touch one another.” Since golf is not a contact sport, the court concluded that a player injured by the golf ball errantly hit by another golfer need only prove “traditional negligence to recover damages rather than willful and wanton conduct.”

Assumption of the Risk

The assumption of the risk doctrine arises out of the common law and “states that in instances where a person knows of the risk of an activity, that person accepts the risk when voluntarily engaging in the pursuit.” The key to the definition is that the person must know the risks involved in the activity.

Risk to golfers hit by golf balls, golf clubs, or golf carts while on the golf course

The doctrine applies to golfers hit by errant golf balls or even flying club heads. These types of accidents are considered just part of the sport of golf and are to be expected. A few years ago in Wisconsin, a golfer was struck in the right side of his head by a ball that his partner hit. The injured golfer was taken to a hospital and died a few days later due to his injury, which caused a cerebral hemorrhage. No one was liable since the injured golfer assumed the risk of being hit by a ball when he stepped onto the golf course to play.

This also applies to golfers being hit by golf balls or golf clubs that may fly out of a golfer’s grip. It may even apply to those being hit by golf carts that accidentally crash into them, depending on the circumstances of the crash and where it occurred.

Sutton v. Glen Ridge Country Club: Golf Accident and $1 Million Settlement

Golf accidents can have severe and life-altering consequences, as exemplified by the recent case of Debra Sutton. A $1 million settlement was reached in Sutton v. Glen Ridge Country Club, where Sutton was tragically struck by a golf cart while standing outside the club’s pro shop. The incident occurred due to a series of unfortunate events, with the golf cart’s engine running and an accidental accelerator activation caused by a falling case of water. The impact left Sutton with devastating injuries, including crushed legs and damage to her back, knee, foot, calf, ankle, and head. Numerous surgeries and medical procedures were required to address her condition. Fortunately, after a prolonged legal battle, Sutton received the settlement she deserved.

Most courts in Illinois and other states have concluded that it is common knowledge that golf balls do not always end up in the exact spot players intend when they hit them. Players assume this risk when they get on the golf course to play the game.

When Assumption of the Risk Does Not Apply

In 2004, an Illinois appellate court refused to apply the assumption of the risk doctrine when a woman, who was a passenger in a golf cart, was struck in the head with a golf ball as her sister was driving their golf cart near the pro shop. The court concluded that since the owner had installed many safety precautions around the pro shop, like locating it away from the direction of the fairway and building a fence around the clubhouse, it was not reasonable for golfers to expect to be hit there by an errant golf ball. Therefore, the assumption of the risk doctrine did not apply.

Application of the Doctrine to Adjacent Property Owners and Spectators

The assumption of the risk doctrine applies to those who voluntarily attend a golfing event as spectators or even those who park in a parking lot next to a golf course. It also applies to those who live in homes adjacent to the golf course. An Illinois Court confirmed this regarding a woman living in a home bordering a West Chicago golf course.

The woman was gardening in her yard when an errant golf ball hit her in the head. She sued the golf course and the golfer for her damages. The case wound its way through the legal system before the golfer was lucky and had the case dismissed by a judge who found that the woman assumed the risk when she chose to live adjacent to the golf course. The golf course had settled with the woman just a few days before the court dismissed the case.

Exceptions to the Assumption of the Risk Doctrine

There may be exceptions to this rule if the plaintiff can prove that the golfer or golf club owner or operator was “grossly and recklessly” negligent. Some examples are:

  • The golfer was angry and intentionally slammed the ball into another person or threw the golf club and hit another person on the golf course.
  • The golfer was inebriated and acted negligently in how he or she attacked the ball.
  • A golf cart was driven in a negligent way or by a drunk golf cart driver.

One extreme example of alleged negligence was presented not too long ago when a golfer on a course in Elk Grove Village claimed he was on the seventh hole when seriously injured. According to a lawsuit filed in Cook County Circuit Court, a porta-potty fell off of a forklift, hitting the golfer and knocking him unconscious. The golfer sued the forklift operator and the owner and operator of the golf course where the incident occurred. The court will likely agree that the golfer did not assume the risk of being hit by a porta-potty when he decided to play golf.

Our Golf Course Attorneys Can Help

If you were seriously injured on a golf course and believe it may have been caused by someone’s negligence, call or text one of our golf accident attorneys at the Blumenshine Law Group (312)766-1000 or email  [email protected]. We gladly offer a free, no-obligation consultation.

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