While typically courts have ruled in favor of clubs when adjacent property owners complain about errant shots, recent reversal of a ruling in a case involving Quaker Ridge GC could set a problematic precedent.
In a recent column in the NCA Connect newsletter issued by the National Club Association, Brad D. Steele, the organization’s Vice President of Government Relations and General Counsel, warned that a recent ruling in New York state could signal a change in how courts may treat complaints about errant golf balls from owners of properties adjacent to clubs and courses.
In many parts of the U.S., Steele wrote, courts have ruled in favor of a club when an adjacent property owner has complained about stray golf balls. The majority of rulings in the country have been that property owners assume the risk of having golf balls hit onto their land when they buy next to a club or course.
But a new legal theory has begun to succeed, at least in New York, and it could become a problem for clubs across the country, Steele noted.
“Recently, we have seen more plaintiffs cite ‘trespass’ laws as their basis for their lawsuit against a club,” he wrote. “They base their claim on the number and frequency of golf balls hit onto their property. Unfortunately, this claim is gaining traction.”
In June, Steele noted, a New York appeals court reversed a ruling that had gone in favor of Quaker Ridge Golf Club in Scarsdale, N.Y. In the lower court’s decision, the New York trial judge dismissed a homeowner’s claim that Quaker Ridge had not done enough to prevent balls from entering their yard. The judge stated that the existence of the golf course next to the home was “open and obvious” to the plaintiffs, and thus “the risk of golf balls landing on the premises was apparent.”
The homeowners decided to appeal that result, Steele wrote, and in reversing that decision, the appeals court did in fact give credence to the trespass claim, by stating that Quaker Ridge “failed to sufficiently reduce the number of golf balls landing on the plaintiff’s property,” creating an “uncomfortable and inconvenient” environment. Enough golf balls were hit with such frequency over a period of time as to amount to “willfulness,” the appeals court found.
Simply put, Steele said, this meant the court had ruled that although the plaintiffs moved into a home next to a golf course, the course was still liable for the balls hit onto the homeowners’ premises, due to the number of balls hit and the trouble it caused the couple.
Quaker Ridge may appeal the decision to New York’s top court, Steele noted, but this ruling could set a precedent for errant ball claims and open more clubs to the “trespass” argument.
As of now, he wrote, the defense that a homeowner “came to the nuisance” is still the majority rule in the United States, but that will only apply if the plaintiff actually decides to sue under that theory of law. And because that theory has shown it is not likely succeed, Steele noted, it’s more likely that plaintiffs’ attorneys will now focus more on the “trespass” theory.
That theory was also used in a 2008 case involving Winged Foot Golf Club, which is adjacent to Quaker Ridge in Mamaroneck, N.Y., Steele noted. In that case, a trial court judge issued a controversial ruling when he levied a temporary suspension on the course’s sixth hole after a homeowner filed an errant-ball suit against the club, using the trespass theory. Although Winged Foot did put up new trees to prevent balls from entering the plaintiff’s property, the judge deemed it was not enough.
Steele also cited the example of Fenton v. Quaboag Country Club Inc., a case involving a plaintiff who moved into a home next to the Monson, Mass. golf course and saw 250 balls enter the property each year. Quaboag CC built a 24-foot high fence, yet balls still went over it, and the court ruled in favor of the homeowner because this constituted trespassing.
Steele also cited the case of a Montana homeowner who filed an errant-ball claim based on “nuisance and trespass.” In that instance, the golf course won against the nuisance claim and defended the trespass claim by asserting that it held a “prescriptive easement” that allowed the golf balls to enter the property.
While making a prescriptive easement claim is difficult and requires adherence to certain statutory requirements, Steele wrote, it worked in this case. Montana requires a five-year period for a prescriptive easement to be created and because the homeowners had not complained about golf balls coming into the property during that period, the club was also able to overcome the trespassing claim.
Though clubs do have an opportunity to win in these types of cases, Steele advised in his column, the reversal of the Quaker Ridge GC ruling shows that it might be best to try to avoid them all together. “It is always important for golf courses to prevent balls from unnecessarily entering an adjacent residential home, as poorly hit balls can cause damage to property and injure bystanders,” he wrote. “Equally, clubs should be prepared to provide proper notice to nearby homeowners, informing them of the risks of living close to a golf course.
“In the end, plaintiff’s attorneys are becoming more adept at going after clubs,” Steele concluded. “As such, private clubs need to be more aware of how their members play and what that play could mean if a trespass claim is filed against the club. If it happens and your club has not taken the steps necessary to minimize the number of golf balls hit into a homeowner’s yard, the result can hit your bottom line harder than any slice or snap-hook your members may hit.”