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Julian Dexter

Julian Dexter

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Golf claims – could lightning strike twice?

AWARE17/04/2013
Casualty Aware 2

With the arrival of Spring and hopefully better weather, golfers will be dusting off their clubs and venturing forth onto local fairways.

Taking into account the interest generated by our golf course report in the last edition of Liability AWARE, this is an opportune time to give an overview of the duties involved in the most common golfing claims.

Claims are generally made against golf clubs, course operators, players - or a combination of all three. When dealing with claims from club members you initially need to consider the legal status of the club. Whether a duty is owed is not as straight- forward as you may think.

Unincorporated

Many golf clubs are unincorporated. This means they have no legal status distinct from their members, as opposed to limited companies. An unincorporated association cannot bring or defend legal proceedings in its own name. Proceedings must name individual representatives of the club, usually committee members such as the treasurer, secretary or chairman. It was held in Robertson v Ridley (1989) that committee members do not owe any duty of care towards the other members.

Technically a member suing the club by means of an action against its representatives is, by law, suing themselves. In that case the Court of Appeal held that a club was not liable to one of its members in respect of injuries arising from the condition of the premises.

The courts have more recently looked to mitigate the effects of this judgment and the Court of Appeal held in Grice v Stourport Tennis Hockey and Squash Club (1997) that membership of a club - whilst not of itself giving rise to liability - did not provide immunity where a duty of care would otherwise exist. Courts will look to the club’s rules of membership when considering this issue. Also, it is likely that the more sophisticated an organisation, the more willing a court will be to find the existence of a duty. It is possible to run this technical defence concurrent to a defence that there has been no breach of duty.

These principles can also apply to any claims against other unincorporated organisations where the claimant is a member.

Where a duty exists it arises from common law and under s2 (2) of the Occupier’s Liability Act (1957). The duty is to keep visitors reasonably safe for the purpose that they are entitled to be on the premises.

Course layout

A common source of claim relates to course layout. Whilst unreasonable to expect a club to eradicate any possibility of visitors being struck by a ball, the club is required to carry out a risk assessment of the course layout and take reasonable steps to eliminate any risk identified.

Keoghs recently handled a case in which a golfer was injured when another player's tee shot struck him whilst he was on the green on the previous hole. The layout was such that the proximity of the green and the tee made it foreseeable that miss hit tee shots would go in the direction of the green. A risk assessment, which could have identified the risks and provided recommendation for their minimisation, had not been carried out and it was necessary to compromise the claim.

What amounts to reasonable will vary from course to course. For example it may be cost prohibitive and impractical to alter the layout of the course and warning signs may suffice. Certain courses, however, may create such a clear risk that high expenditure to minimise or remove the risk is warranted.

Claims are often brought in relation to other more natural hazards such as pot holes or protruding tree roots and the same test will apply.

Hazards

Golfers should be aware of the natural obstacles that may be encountered on a golf course. They have a duty to take reasonable care for their own safety. A club may be found liable however if it is foreseeable that a hazard, such as a concealed ditch, or a wooden walkway made slippery by moss would cause injury. It is prudent for a club to perform and document a daily inspection of the course to identify and deal with newly created hazards.

A common scenario involves a ball striking another player which can result in serious or even fatal injuries in extreme cases. The Rules of Golf are a useful starting point. Whilst having no legal authority, they are relevant as to the standard of behaviour to be adopted. The section on etiquette provides:

“Players should ensure that no-one is standing close by or in a position to be hit by the club, ball or any stones, pebbles, twigs or the like when they make a stroke or practice swing.”

“Players should not play until the players in front are out of range...If a player plays a ball in the direction where there is a danger of hitting someone, he should immediately shout a warning. The traditional word of warning in such situations is 'fore'.”

Failure to adhere to these rules may be evidence of breach of duty.

Other factors to consider include; how far the injured person was from the player at the time of the shot, the visibility of the injured person, the direction of the ball travel and the ability of the player hitting the shot.

Cases

The leading authority is Pearson v Lightning (1998). In that case the wonderfully named Mr Lightning hit a poor shot. The ball deflected off a branch and careered in the direction of the claimant who was at an adjacent hole and struck him in his right eye. The claimant succeeded. He was within range of the shot, and given Mr Lightning’s relative lack of skill it ought to have been foreseeable that the shot could have gone anywhere.

Two other cases are also noteworthy.

In Brewer v Delo (1967) the defendant hooked his tee shot and struck the claimant, who was around 200 yards ahead on the adjoining fairway. The claim failed on the basis that the risk was so small that any reasonable man would have been justified in disregarding it.

This can be contrasted with Lewis v Buckpool Golf Club and Another (1993). The defendant golfer was found liable for failing to wait before driving. It was held that whilst the risk was small, it could have been avoided entirely if the player had waited momentarily until the claimant had moved from the green on the adjacent hole.

Consideration should be given as to whether liability may attach to more than one party. Keoghs have handled claims where sizeable contributions have been obtained from other parties.

Points for investigation

  • What steps have been taken to consider the course safety?
  • Are there any risk assessments?
  • Have there been any previous accidents, complaints and near misses? An absence of previous incidents or a low number in comparison of the number of rounds played can assist a defence.
  • Witness evidence from course professional(s) should be obtained if possible.
  • Alternatively, or in addition, evidence should be obtained from groundsmen, committee members and other players.
  • Obtain photographs and plans of the course layout.
  • In larger cases, it may be worthwhile getting expert evidence.