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Golf fans don’t have much legal recourse if hit by errant tee shot

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USA TODAY Sports’ Steve DiMeglio says that even though Team USA has trouble winning overseas, it should still stick with its current formula. USA TODAY Sports

Brooks Koepka or somebody in that antsy foursome behind you at your local track could severely injure you with a shanked shot — and the result will almost certainly be the same from a legal standpoint. 

It won’t likely travel far in court. 

“The reason it is so hard to even get this in front of a jury is because in most states, there’s an assumption of risk defense in these types of cases,” said Marc Diller, a Boston-based lawyer who sued the Boston Red Sox on behalf of a fan injured by a foul ball. “Any patron who goes to a golf match or a baseball game assumes the risks of those hazards. Those known risks, for baseball, would be foul balls. At a professional golf tournament, it’s errant golf balls.”

Corine Remande, a 49-year-old woman from Egypt, said she suffered an “explosion of the eyeball” when a drive struck by Koepka, an American golfer, hit her in the face at the Ryder Cup on Saturday. Remande is considering mounting a legal action against organizers of the event held over the weekend in France, according to reports. 

Legal experts told USA TODAY Sports had such an incident happened in the U.S., Remande would be hard pressed to even get the case to trial –– let alone win a verdict. Each state has its own laws that govern personal injury and in some jurisdictions merely warning fans of danger — including in the small print on tickets — is enough to thwart litigation.  

“In the U.S., the law is pretty clear,” Chicago-based attorney Robert Clifford said. “Being on a golf course — either as a player or spectator — there’s an obvious danger.”

Spectator lawsuits made up less than 5 percent of golf-related lawsuits, according to an analysis by Kyongmin Lee as part of a 2015 dissertation at the University of New Mexico that examined 147 golf-related legal cases between 1930 and 2013. Most golf-related legal claims related to ball-strike injuries come from those playing at local courses. 

More: Koepka ‘heartbroken’ after tee shot exploded woman’s eyeball

The assumption of risk defense has doomed some recent lawsuits filed against MLB and its clubs over foul ball injuries. 

 Diller represented Stephanie Taubin, a fan struck in the face at Fenway Park in 2014 by a foul ball hit by David Ortiz. Unlike other cases that alleged negligence on behalf of the team or league, the case actually made it to trial. A jury ultimately found the Boston Red Sox and team owner John Henry were not negligent for facial fractures and neurological damage suffered from the foul ball that hit Taubin as she sat in an unshielded luxury box.

The Chicago Cubs were dismissed from a claim brought by spectator Jay Loos, who suffered a broken nose and other facial injures last year.  MLB remains a defendant in the lawsuit.  

“In Illinois, the property owner is protected from liability and since Wrigley Field is owned by the Cubs, they were protected by statute,” Colin Dunn, Loos’ attorney, told USA TODAY Sports. “The defense, in baseball’s case, is that fans come into the stadium knowing that foul balls are a frequent danger. In golf, the risk is different. One thing you have to look at is whether fans were moved closer than normal, which put them in a riskier position.”

According to reports from France last weekend, Americans attending the Ryder Cup commented how the fairways were much tighter at Le Golf National than they typically are on U.S. courses, allowing fans to get closer than they normally would.

Advancements in golf equipment technology and player fitness — contributing to drives going further than in past generations — could also factor into the seemingly more frequent ball-strike incidents at tournaments, even the more benign ones like Jason Day hitting a shot into a fan’s beer at the Masters earlier this year.   

There’s also been some back-and-forth when it came to whether “fore” was yelled when Koepka’s shot went astray.

The European Tour issued a statement Tuesday that declared “fore” was shouted multiple times, although Remande told The Telegraph that she heard no such warnings. 

“Officials did not shout any warning as the player’s ball went into the crowd,” Remande told the outlet. 

There’s actually a case in Louisiana that covers who’s legally responsible when “fore” is yelled. 

Alvin Baker sued a fellow golfer who struck him on a course in 1980. Baker heard “fore” before the ball struck him. A jury in 1984 sided with the defendants, Don Thibodaux and his insurance company, partly because Thibodaux warned other golfers by yelling “fore” — a judgement upheld by a a Louisiana state appeals court. 

“The general rule, as reflected by the decision of our sister states, is that a golfer owes a duty to use reasonable care to avoid injuring other players on the course,” the appeals court wrote in its 1985 decision. “A player intending to strike a ball is under a duty to give the traditional warning by yelling ‘fore’ to persons in his line of play or those in such a position that possible injury to them is reasonably foreseeable. However, the player is under no duty to give advance warning to persons on contiguous holes or fairways, where the danger to them is not reasonably anticipated nor is he under a duty to give a specific warning to another player whom he knows already has him in view and is aware of his intended drive.”

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