What Are COVID-19 Waivers and How Are They Impacting Professional Golf?

Jul 11, 2020

So far this summer, Coffman Law’s “Golf and the Law” blog series has provided readers with in-depth discussions of the latest golf-related legal issues. Overall, these discussions have centered on the idea that golf by its very nature is a sport whose many interwoven components often lead directly into legal disputes. Conversely, today’s post actually examines the intersection between Coronavirus and golf – that is, it analyzes the recent use of COVID-19 legal liability waivers by golf courses and organizations. This blog first analyzes COVID-19 waivers in general before evaluating the effect of these waivers (and Coronavirus itself) on the professional golf space.

What Are COVID-19 Legal Waivers?

In a broad sense, legal waivers are documents shielding a person or entity from legal liability under certain circumstances. These types of waivers are widely used across the country to limit the liability of all types of businesses, but especially those involving some type of physical risk to the user. For instance, liability waivers are often presented to consumers at fitness centers, skiing resorts, and amusement parks.

In the context of COVID-19, many businesses have also used legal waivers in an effort to shield themselves from liability should their customers contract the virus. In light of the economic struggles presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, many businesses are anxious to open their doors while also acknowledging the possibility of future Coronavirus-related litigation. Accordingly, businesses across the country from restaurants to barber shops and even (as discussed further below) golf courses have adopted COVID-19 liability waivers. In fact, President Trump’s campaign recently used COVID-19 liability waivers for a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The President’s waiver asked rally-goers to “[acknowledge] that an inherent risk of exposure to COVID-19 exists in any public place where people are present” and “assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19.”

Such waivers are generally held to be enforceable, though courts of different states maintain varying standards and exceptions for when liability waivers should be rendered unenforceable. Initially, courts in only three states – Louisiana, Montana, and Vermont – prohibit the use of liability waivers altogether. Other states such as California allow businesses to employ liability waivers but then assess those waivers under strict guidelines in the courtroom as to render most of them unenforceable. Conversely, a group of states including Alabama, Georgia, Michigan, Ohio and more maintain fairly lenient standards for the enforceability of liability waivers.

In Illinois, courts also scrutinize, and often toss out, liability waivers by looking at a few important factors. First of all, since businesses evading liability is generally disfavored by courts, Illinois construes the language of the agreement against the drafting party. In terms of the actual agreement, Illinois courts require that the waiver contain “clear, explicit, and unequivocal language referencing the types of activities, circumstances, or situations that it encompasses.” Oelze v. Score Sports Venture, LLC, 927 N.E.2d 137, 147 (Ill. App. Ct. 2010). The state also holds that, for a liability waiver to be enforceable, the parties must not display any disparity in bargaining power or any type of special relationship affecting whether the agreement should be enforced. Finally – and often times most importantly – the waiver must not be contrary to public policy. Illinois courts regularly invalidate liability waivers on the basis that they violate some aspect of public policy.

How Coronavirus and Legal Waivers Are Impacting Professional Golf

As with all major American sports, Coronavirus has significantly hampered the PGA’s ability to safely host professional golf events. However, given golf’s nature of keeping players somewhat spread apart, the PGA was able to bring back competitive golf before most other professional sports. The PGA returned on June 11 with the Charles Schwab Classic in Forth Worth, Texas, but shortly thereafter, the sport was hit with a COVID-19 outbreak impacting several high-profile players. Specifically, just weeks after the PGA restarted its season, Cameron Champ, Brooks Koepka, Graeme McDowell, Webb Simpson, and Nick Watney (among others) have all been forced to withdraw from upcoming PGA events due to Coronavirus concerns.

As a result of Coronavirus spikes in late June and early July, the PGA was also forced to cancel its plan to host spectators at the 2020 Memorial Tournament in mid-July. Importantly, the NFL’s recently reported plan for the fall is to force spectators to sign COVID-19 liability waivers if they want to attend games. Should this report be proven true, it would not be a surprise if the PGA were to follow the most popular American sports league and use the same tactic once fans are allowed at major golf events.

After watching the COVID-19 pandemic play out across the country and within the golf community, numerous golf courses have now resorted to using liability waivers to limit their potential legal exposure. Namely, golf courses across the U.S. are now asking players who wish to participate in amateur tournaments or even simply play on the course to sign a waiver acknowledging that, should they contract Coronavirus on the course, the player will not bring legal action. For instance, Costa Mesa Country Club in California is making all players sign a waiver – which can be seen HERE – that outlines social distancing guidelines and makes clear that the player is assuming the risk of playing during the pandemic.

At this point, the enforceability of these COVID-19 legal waivers is a true toss-up and likely depends on your jurisdiction’s precedent regarding liability waivers. One important factor may be the nature of the activity, meaning that courts are more likely to uphold liability waivers where an individual chose to engage in an optional recreational activity such as going to a public pool versus a necessity like going to the grocery store. If you are hesitant about signing a COVID-19 liability waiver, contact an attorney to discuss your state’s position on liability waivers and assess whether the waiver should be signed.

If any readers find themselves in a golf-related legal battle, do not hesitate to reach out to Coffman Law. Owner and Founding Partner Brian Coffman is a lifelong golf fanatic and former collegiate golfer who knows the game and its operations inside and out. Click HERE to contact our office for a free consultation.

About Coffman Law Offices, P.C.

Coffman Law is committed to providing superb legal representation for people who are suffering from severe personal injuries or are dealing with the loss of a loved one due to negligence or misconduct. Coffman Law is a small, results-driven firm focused on ensuring that clients receive the compassion, attention, and consideration that they need to seek adequate redress for injuries or loss. The firm is led by Owner and Founding Partner Brian Coffman, who has dedicated his career to helping accident victims navigate the legal system and obtain redress for their injuries. If you have been injured or lost a loved one, contact Coffman Law today for a free consultation.