With over 1,400 courses, Florida has rightfully been called the “Golf Capitol of the World.” And that’s a big statement, given the growing popularity of the game around the world.
The number of spectators has grown, too. The unfortunate side of this growth was brought home with a recent horrible accident.
The incident occurred at the 42nd Ryder Cup held at the Albatros Course of Le Golf National in Guyancourt, France in September 2018. It raises new questions about spectator safety and legal ramifications of accidents involving golf balls.
Blinded While Watching
Corine Remande, 49, was watching the tournament when an errant tee shot by U.S. golfer Brooks Koepka hit her directly in her right eye. She was taken immediately to a local hospital and treated not only for an eyeball that basically, ‘exploded,’ but also for a fractured eye-socket. Clearly a golf back powerfully hit can cause extreme damage; doctors have told Remande that she has permanently lost vision and that no treatment can restore it.
“I’m heartbroken, and all messed up inside,” said Koepka, currently the 3rd ranked golfer in the world. “She’s not going to be able to see out of her eye ever again. All because I hit a golf ball.”
Koepka noted that “it’s hard to control a golf ball… and a lot of times the fans are close to the fairway.”
The distance between Remande and Koepka isn’t certain; however witnesses have stated that it was at some distance. It is possible that with adequate warning there might have been time for her to protect her face. Instead, there was “no warning shout from the course official when the ball was heading towards the crowd,” said Remande.
The Ryder Cup is a joint venture between the PGA of America and the PGA European Tour which has announced that it will investigate the incident. Of course, cynical observers would note the incentive held by an organization interested in minimizing their liability exposure. Koepka himself has already said that a warning might not have made a difference:
“You can yell ‘fore’ but it doesn’t matter from 300 yards, you can’t hear it.”
Some reports due indicate that people shouted ‘fore’ after Koepka struck the ball. It seems apparently, however, that Remande neither heard these warnings nor knew that the ball was flying towards her location.
Lawsuits and Spectator Liability
Remande’s lawsuit, should she file one, would be in a French court of law. But in the United States, there are a number of similar cases involving golf spectators and injuries. And it may be an uphill battle.
Courts have often ruled that golfers assume the possibility of golf ball injuries as an inherent risk of the sport. One case from 1972 is Jenks v. McGranaghan, in which a golfer was injured by a high-speed flying ball as he walked from the 9th tee. Much like Remande, Jenks was blinded by the ball hit by fellow golfer Donald McGranaghan. Jenks sued largely based on McGranaghan’s failure to warn before the shot. McGranaghan and members of his group asserted that they did in fact yell, ‘Fore,’ after the shot; again, like Remande, Jenks claimed not to have heard their shouts.
The court ruled in favor of McGranaghan, reasoning that any golfer may hit an errant shot from time to time; that there is no obligation to ‘pre-warn’ before a shot, and that those on a golf course assume certain inherent risks from the activity. The biggest difference in this case and the Ryder Cup case is that in Jenks v. McGranaghan, both parties were themselves golfers. Courts have been more willing to look at golf injuries under premises liability law when the person being injured is a spectator.
Spectators fall into the ‘business invitee’ category under premises law. In
Duffy v. Midlothian Country Club, Alice Duffy was a spectator at an Illinois golf tournament in 1973. She was in a concession area while hit in the eye by a golf ball, causing her to lose sight in that eye. The initial trial granted summary judgment to the club—denying Duffy a chance to present her case to a jury. But an appellate court reversed this decision, deciding that jurors could evaluate the case.
And for spectators, what about tickets with near ubiquitous language regarding waiver of liability? Some defendants seem to believe this automatically allows them to deny all responsibility for injuries to guests, but that is not always the case. Waivers must be understandable and clearly visible. And they cannot discharge liability if the business engaged in intentional wrongdoing, fraud, or other misconduct.
This is true in United States law—and also in the French legal system.
So Remande may indeed have a case after all.
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