Tee Shot Plan Goes Awry, Golfers Liable for Injury

Pennsylvania law makes it almost impossible for participants in sporting events to sue each other over their injuries. For the most part, both the players and the spectators at sporting events are presumed to have voluntarily assumed all risks that naturally flow from the often rough and tumble arena of private and spectator sports. In a recent case involving an injury on a golf course, a Pennsylvania court recognized an exception to this general rule.

Three golfers were poised to tee off on the 17th hole at a charity golf tournament. Concerned that the group playing ahead of them might still be on the next green, which was obscured by a hill, the three golfers came up with a plan. Golfer #1 was the least skilled in the group and was not capable of driving a ball over the hill. Because he could safely hit his tee shot without risk of hitting the group ahead, the threesome decided that Golfer #1 would take his tee shot and promptly scout the next hole to see if the next green was clear of golfers.

The plan was that, upon Golfer #1’s return, the other two golfers would tee off, as both of them were capable of driving a ball all the way to the obscured green. For reasons that none could later fully explain, perhaps due to fatigue or poor communication, Golfer #2 did not wait for Golfer #1 to return but took his tee shot while Golfer #1 was enroute back from his scouting expedition. Golfer #2’s powerful hook shot struck Golfer #1 directly in the face, causing him serious and permanent injuries.

The Pennsylvania court noted that Pennsylvania law clearly frowns on any liability arising out of sporting events, reasoning that “those who participate or sit as spectators at sports and amusements assume all the obvious risks of being hurt by roller coasters, flying balls, baseball, golf, polo, hockey, fireworks, explosions, or the struggles of the contestants. The timorous may stay at home.”

But in the case involving the three golfers, the court noted that Golfer #1, hit while he was driving the cart on the golf path in an agreed plan to report back to his group, had not assumed the risk that his group would depart from their plan and tee off directly toward him. In fact, Golfer #1 “had every right to anticipate none of his playing partners would attempt a tee shot until his return to the tee box.”

The broad limits on liability at sports events remains the law of Pennsylvania. Nevertheless, where special or unusual facts exist, the courts remain open to holding sports participants responsible for their careless conduct.

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