It is with some irony that at the Open Golf in Lytham yesterday one of the world’s top golfers, Rory McIlroy, experienced the nerve wracking anxiety of the weekend golf hacker by hitting a wayward shot which felled a spectator on the course!
McIlroy had little cause for concern when he struck his drive but what he could not see was that his ball struck Jason Blue, a 16 year-old from Bristol, while he was standing near a burger van just beyond the heavy rough on the right hand side of the fairway.
Blue, at his first Open, suffered a cut to the back of his head which had to be bandaged up by paramedics and he took several minutes to get back to his feet. To help ease the pain, McIlroy gave him a signed glove, inscribed with the word “Sorry” and a cartoon drawing of a sad face!
“The most important thing was that he was OK, because I would have felt terrible if it had have been worse than it was,” McIlroy added. “He told me it was OK. I didn’t realise that there was out of bounds over there…..If he could have headed it the other way, it would have been in the fairway!”
Whist McIlroy attempted to make light of the incident, it again brought into sharp focus the extent of risk and liability that is inherent in golf at all levels, whether playing or watching.
Although many people think of golf as a safe, non-contact sport, statistics in the UK show that around 12,000 golfers a year require hospital treatment as a direct result of injury on the golf course. In one year alone 3,530 head injury accidents were recorded. There have even been cases involving settlement of vet bills for treatment to a dog whose leg was broken by a wayward golf ball!
A golf ball is an extremely hard object, and when travelling at high speeds it can result in serious injuries if it hits another golfer, spectator or someone else’s property. Most UK household insurances do not include cover for personal accident injuries sustained while playing sports such as golf. Most people are not aware of this, and independent research has found that nine out of ten UK golfers are not properly insured on the golf course against personal injury or accident.
Over recent years personal liability claims against golfers have been on the increase (with claims tripling in the last five years) after the courts ruled in favour of a claim brought by a lorry driver who lost an eye after being hit by a badly sliced drive.
The case that has led to this increase in claims was in 1998, when the high court ruled in the case of Anthony Lighting (whose faulty shot blinded a lorry driver in one eye) that ‘golfers are liable for shots that cause injury, no matter how slight the risk’. The case was upheld on appeal with the Court of Appeal ruling that golfers who mis-hit shots causing injury to other persons will be liable to pay damages even if they do shout ‘FORE!’. In 2001 the UK’s largest Public Liability claim for a golf sport injury was settled. The £87,000+ settlement (including legal costs) was made following an incident at the London Golf Club in September 1996 where a golf ball hit a fellow golfer on the right temple as she walked forwards to the ladies tee. She suffered serious head injury.
As golf courses are often now being built close to residential areas and getting busier, the probability of injuring a fellow golfer or a passer-by is much more common (by ball or club) and the risk of doing so is greater every time you play. Add to this the compensation culture of today, where people are much more likely to prosecute, stepping out onto the golf course is an increasingly risky business where hitting a fore could result in a costly lawsuit.
Golf members are starting to see the importance of taking out personal liability insurance, but the law does make provision for injured parties to sue the club itself. As the compensation culture shows no signs of abating, clubs also need to ensure that they don’t get caught out.
People are often under the misapprehension that their household insurance policy extends cover to golf equipment and public liability needs. However, many policies exclude public liability cover for sport injury and offer only restricted cover for equipment used for golf. Some golf clubs offer ‘golf insurance’ for an extra fee on membership or green fees, some even make it mandatory. This cover is often limited to public liability on that course on that day only.
Personal liability claims can run into thousands of pounds, so the best advice to any golfer is to make sure they have adequate personal liability insurance. This won’t prevent the incident from happening, but it does mean that if the worst happens, they are protected and reduce the risk of paying out thousands in compensation.
Stephen J Lownsbrough
Associate & Head of Sport
Blacks Solicitors LLP
Tel: +44 (0) 113 207 0000