Golf Course Management - April 1996

Lightning can strike the golf course in just a fraction of a second. But if the proper precautions aren't in place, undoing the damage could be a lengthy, complicated process.

By Gary M. Crist, JD

Golf is an outdoor game. Indeed, the open-air experience of the game is one of its main attractions to the 12 million Americans considered core golfers and golf facilities are often exposed to inclement and sometimes dangerous weather condition.

Facilities managers must anticipate the effects of adverse weather and take appropriate steps to protect their patron's safety and the golf facility's valuable assets. Failure to do so may result in property damage, personal injury and legal liability, which could have been avoided by the practice of preventive risk management techniques.

Dispelling the myths

Many people incorrectly believe liability is best avoided by doing nothing. Bob Dugan, vice president of sales and marketing for Thor Guard Inc. in Miami, manufacturer of the lightning predictor system Thor Guard, says one of the biggest obstacles his company encounters in marketing its systems is the belief of some golf facility operators that if they put a system in place - and it malfunctions - they will be more liable than if they had done nothing at all. The underlying, though completely mistaken, premise of this argument is that your legal position is worst when you have recognized a potential hazard, attempted to deal with it, and the loss occurred anyway.

Those who assert this illogical argument believe their approach disassociates them from the hazard, rendering them not responsible for any resultant damage or injury. Such thinking is legally incorrect, to say nothing of its utter insensitivity.

The business relationship between the golf facility and the people on or around the premises imposes a legal obligation on the part of the facility operator to do whatever is appropriate to provide for a reasonably safe environment. In any event, as responsible human beings, we do well to remember that the primary goal of risk management is the preservation of life and limb, not solely the establishment of the best defense in a potential lawsuit.

The duty of "due care"

As business operators, golf facility managers have a duty of "due care" to their patrons and employees. This legal term means that affirmative measures must be taken, when and where it is reasonable to do so, including appropriate measures to deal with the predictable effects of adverse weather conditions.

It is not required that every conceivable preventive measure or precaution be taken, only what the reasonable business person would do under similar circumstances. Facility operators are not legally obligated to be the insurers of their patrons' safety, but neither are they entitled to be oblivious to it.

Preventive measures

The trick, of course, is knowing what to do. Few can predict if it will rain tomorrow, and no one can predict every possible consequence of adverse weather to a golf course full of people. But there are some actions you can take to make your patrons and employees more aware of the golf course risks associated with adverse weather, particularly lightning:

- Post warnings and informational signs, such as the ones available from the USGA at a nominal cost.
- Ensure that at least the clubhouse is lightning-safe.
- Establish course evacuation plans and procedures.
- Provide on-course shelters and note their locations on scorecards.
- Install lightning prediction equipment.
- Subscribe to a thunderstorm warning service.
- Equip employees with appropriate clothing and equipment.
- Purchase appropriate liability and property insurance coverage.

Property and liability insurance

Of course, no series of risk management procedures can guarantee that incidents will not occur. And right or wrong, in our society if something or someone is seriously damaged or injured - seemingly regardless of the true cause - all too often a liability claim is the result. This illustrates the need for perhaps the most effective risk management tool for dealing with weather-related liability claims: a good insurance program.

Although we are fortunate as an industry to have a variety of good insurance programs offered from a number of top-quality companies, the applicability of insurance coverage to particular types of claims is not a simple matter. The guidance of an experienced business insurance agent is recommended.

Review with your agent the types of situations you can anticipate, and make sure the insurance policies you have in place will deliver the protection you want. Pose "what if" questions to your agent. For example, "What if lightning strikes one of our member's cars while it is being valet parked by an employee during a thunderstorm? Are we covered for any property loss or bodily injury?" Revisit your list of questions (and add to it) in a personal meeting with your agent at least once a year.

Take responsibility

Although the weather itself may be an act of God over which we have no control, the liability issues associated with it and a facility's capability to manage them are certainly acts of man that should be taken seriously in today's litigation-prone climate.

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