There’s No Such Thing as a Safe Sporting Event

I’m not an especially avid golfer, but I do keep one on the payroll. As a result, I don’t have to seek out golf news; it comes to me. Whether it’s the British Open, the U.S. Open, or the Masters, it seems like golf is always being discussed at lunch or on the way to Court. This was definitely the case with the 2018 Ryder Cup, where a spectator recently took a tee shot to the face. The victim, Corine Remande, felt her eyeball explode and lost half of her visual field in a flash. Meanwhile, the American golfer, Brooks Koepka, gets to live with the fact that he accidentally blinded someone with an errant drive. 

As we discussed the grisly details over the chilly sadness of our mid-day salads,* it became clear that this was a one-in-a-billion shot. Because we’re lawyers, though, we didn’t linger on the visceral horror for very long before turning our collective attention to procedural matters. This incident occurred in Guyancourt, France, but what if it had happened in Indiana? Who would be liable for Ms. Remande’s injuries and medical bills?

The set-up is pretty straightforward: A person attends a golf outing as an observer, and a golf ball strikes that person. Golf balls are relatively small, but so are bullets. A little thing can do a lot of damage, especially when it’s coming in hot (the drive of the average male amateur is about 130 miles per hour, and Koepka is considerably better than the average male amateur). Who’s on the hook for the spectator’s injuries—the golfer who hit the ball, the coordinator who organized the tournament, or the course that hosted it?

In 2011 the Indiana Supreme Court weighed in on this very issue. In Pfenning v. Lineman, the Court held that unless the golfer either engaged in reckless conduct or intentionally injured the spectator, the person who swung the club had no liability. An errant shot, after all, is one that’s executed in error, and “such conduct is clearly within the range of ordinary behavior of golfers.” The Court likewise found no liability for the golf course, concluding that it was “objectively reasonable” for the course to expect “that persons present on its golf course would realize the risk of being struck by an errant golf ball and take appropriate precautions.”

Interestingly, the Court left open the possibility that the tournament organizer could be liable. Liability usually comes down to the legal concept of duty, and whether someone has a duty to do something is a highly fact-sensitive question.

Bottom line: If you’re injured while participating in or observing a sport that you love, you should speak to an attorney about your options.

*Or was it hot wings? On second thought, I Plead the 5th.