Michael S. Johnstone, AIA, was interviewed on BBC Radio 5 Live following the Ryder Cup accident where a spectator was struck by an errant golf ball and lost the vision in her right eye. The incident raised international attention in the golf community and regarding spectator safety at sporting events in general. Here is an excerpt from Up All Night with Lisa McCormick that aired October 5, 2018.

Host Lisa McCormick: The recent success in Europe’s Ryder Cup also served to highlight an issue that’s been affecting the game of golf. A female spectator was struck by an errant shot during this year’s event that resulted in her losing her sight in her right eye. Then yesterday, another woman was hit on the forehead while watching the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship at the Kingsbarns Golf Course in St. Andrews. Fortunately, she escaped serious injury.

Incidents like these have resulted in some soul searching: How to make the game safer? Let’s talk in greater detail with Michael Johnstone who is a forensic golf course architect in North Carolina… Michael, what do you make of this?

Michael Johnstone: The effect it has on this woman’s life, of course, effects us all…. In the U.S., there are approximately 40,000 players a year who are injured by errant golf shots or by someone swinging their club and striking them in the head. So, this is not an unusual circumstance on the golf course. 

Host: In what way can a golf course design make a difference, Michael?

Michael Johnstone: Well, I can talk about design for the normal play on a golf course, but in this particular case, the tournament makes the environment quite different because so many spectators are introduced to what I call “the playing field”, and there are people that don’t necessarily understand that a golf ball can move at a rate of 170 miles per hour. It’s a hard little object and if it strikes you in the temple or the eye or the jaw, it can actually be lethal.

Host: Is it just something that we have to accept as part and parcel of watching live sporting events like this? If you want to stand in a good position, there is a risk that something like this could happen?

Michael Johnstone: When I watch tournaments like this and I see this tiny little corridor that the professionals are supposed to hit through, and there are people on either side in this tiny little triangle, I think it is a mistake. People need to be pulled back further, but also there should be some education about the fact that it is possibly dangerous. When someone yells fore, F-O-R-E, people should turn away from the ball and put their hands up over the temples of their head to try to protect themselves.

Host: I’ve never been to a big golfing event, but are you given any sort of guidance or advice along those lines?

Michael Johnstone: Well, unfortunately in the U.S., we tend to respond to things after someone has been injured rather than to be preventative, which is a shame… We do that in healthcare, we do that with weather events, etc. …

Host: Sure… yeah, do you think then that with these recent events highlighting it as an issue, it can change the way we watch things like this in the future, the way spectator sports are done?

Michael Johnstone: I certainly hope so… We’re putting in this case thousands of people in harms way… of course they want to lean in to see a little more. We need to give them a little broader triangle. Even the professional golfers are just human beings. They are not going to hit it perfectly each time. I think education is a big thing and prevention would be really important to try to reduce the number of people who are injured this way.

Host: Michael, it’s good to hear from you and to share your expertise with us. Thanks for joining us on Up All Night… Michael Johnstone who is a forensic golf course architect in North Carolina. I like that… You go to a dinner party and someone asks what do you do? “I’m a forensic golf course architect.” That’s naturally going to be one of those titles you’re going to say, “What is that?”

Errant golf ball accident parallel opposing holes

A 43-year-old man and his girlfriend were playing golf at a public golf course in Ohio. They were on the 2nd hole that runs parallel to the 1st hole but in the opposite direction. The plaintiff parked the golf cart near the green and was struck in the head by a golf ball hit from the 1st tee. The ball struck him above the temple causing serious injury. His girlfriend tried to give him aid as she screamed for help. The foursome at the 1st tee did not help or even stop. The girlfriend then drove the injured victim to the clubhouse where an ambulance was called and the injured man was taken to the hospital.

A safety cone depicts the area where about 80% of tee shots will land. Michael S. Johnstone AIA

Expert witness and golf course architect Michael S. Johnstone, AIA, demonstrated the use of a “safety cone” to explain that a significant percentage of errant shots would land in that very location. Further investigation revealed the accident was foreseeable and preventable. Poor routing of the golf cart path put players at high risk from tee shots from the 1st hole when standing on or near the 2nd green. In addition, the two parallel holes were only 186 feet apart creating a danger of hitting into oncoming players. Furthermore, a tree line intended as a safety buffer obscured the view, exacerbating the danger and preventing verbal warning of errant shots.

Two parents and three teenage children went to a Tennessee mountain resort to claim free zip-line tickets. They were asked if they were interested in the vacation rentals and replied honestly that they only wanted the tickets. The salesman told them that was not a problem, he only needed to drive them to the top of the mountain to fulfill their promotional obligation. He asked if they would mind if his own son rode along since he would start working there soon. They all agreed.

The family visited a mountain resort in exchange for free recreation tickets. Little did they know they were in for the ride of their lives.

The family was led to a golf cart with three rows of seating for six occupants. The salesman weighed over 300 pounds and was the driver with his son seated beside him. The two teenage girls sat in the middle row. The father, mother and their son sat in back row, making a total of seven occupants. The drive was approximately 1.4 miles up a steep and winding mountain road. They climbed to an elevation of 1800 feet then parked to enjoy the scenic view.

Upon returning to the vehicle, the salesman advised his son to always choose a golf cart carefully because the brakes were prone to failure. Moments later while descending a steep curve, the salesman announced that the brakes had gone out. The family thought it was a bad joke, only to realize he was not joking. With several sharp turns and a long descent ahead, the golf cart began gaining excessive speed. The male occupants attempted to slow the vehicle by dragging their feet on the pavement like Fred Flintstone. Their efforts were futile and the father was thrown from the golf cart and suffered serious injuries. Yet, hearing his family screaming in the runaway vehicle, he picked himself up and chased the golf cart on foot with a rush of adrenalin.

Miraculously, the salesman controlled the vehicle all the way down the road until it slowed to a stop at a level area. The family was frantic, fearing the worst had happened to their father. After finding him, he was treated by EMTs and put on a stretcher with neck brace, then taken by ambulance to the hospital. He was treated for serious injuries to his shoulder, arm, leg and eye. His physical recovery took one year and the whole family had reportedly been traumatized.

Architect Michael S. Johnstone was retained as expert witness based on his expertise in golf cart safety and accident analysis. His review of the accident report and witness statements revealed discrepancies in the golf cart model, labeled as a four-seater but having six seats. The year and model did not match the lease agreement. The golf cart also did not appear suited for use on steep mountain roads, lacking basic safety features required on cars.

Moreover, the seven occupants exceeded the vehicle capacity and their combined weight was over its maximum load. Employee records revealed staff were required to drive guests on the property, but the resort offered no details about training for mountain roads and emergency procedures. Drivers were given a safety checklist, but had no way to check brakes or steering other than driving. The checklist also required occupants to wear seat belts, but there were none in the vehicle. Service records for the fleet showed anomalies prior to the accident. Poor communication was found between the resort staff and maintenance company. After the accident, the repair shop was not informed the vehicle suffered brake failure or was involved in severe injury of a guest. The vehicle only received routine maintenance and was placed back into service.

Frequency of golf cart accidents are increasing as more private communities allow golf carts or Low Speed Vehicles (LSV) on open roads. Automobile laws and safety inspections may not apply. Often they simply are not enforced on private property. However, golf courses have specific industry standards regarding vehicles, including vehicle specifications, cart paths, maintenance and accident reporting. This is largely due to the International Light Terrain Vehicle Association (ILTVA), formerly the Golf Cart Manufacturers Association.

Every year, our firm investigates serious golf cart accidents and finds that safety guidelines are typically overlooked. Golf course employees can only follow industry guidelines when demanded by their employer. Accident reports are often specified by insurance companies, but employees receive little to no training how to document them or when to sequester a vehicle for further inspection by an expert.

Expert witness golf rattlesnakes wildlife bite injury

An award-winning golf course located on tribal land in the high desert of New Mexico was sued by a husband and wife when the wife was bitten by a rattlesnake. The incident occurred while searching for a lost golf ball. The woman was rushed to the hospital where she received emergency treatment and survived. The couple sued the golf course for her injury, medical expenses, suffering, and past and future loss of earnings. They alleged the golf course was negligent for the dangerous conditions and failed to warn players of the danger from rattlesnakes.

Groundskeepers hunted and found the snake. The Superintendent killed it and presented the rattle to the victim while she was in the emergency room.

Golf course architect Michael S. Johnstone, AIA, was retained as expert witness in the case. The firm investigated the complaint, researched the history of the golf course, interviewed golf course staff, and conducted a site inspection to assess overall conditions. The firm found that 140,000 rounds were played at the golf course, or about 15,000 rounds per year. This included youth, amateur and college tournaments, plus golfing tourists from around the world. No snake bites were previously reported. Furthermore, the golf course had received many industry awards and was named among the best public courses in the US and state by numerous golf and travel magazines.

The investigation learned that the plaintiffs played at the golf course many times and took lessons there. They also lived nearby and operated two businesses, one of which led big game hunting expeditions in New Mexico. Yet, the couple testified they did not know rattlesnakes existed in New Mexico.

Environmental research and photographs were used to document the golf course, the natural habitat, and indigenous wildlife in the region. The firm reported that New Mexico ranks as the fourth highest state in bio-diversity and the third highest in diversity among mammals and reptiles. Public information for residents and homeowners about rattlesnakes was cited from the State of New Mexico and U.S. Department of Agriculture. Notably, snakes have been celebrated in the Native American art and culture of New Mexico for centuries. Even school children are routinely educated about the wildlife of New Mexico, including rattlesnakes.


Native vegetation and wildlife are inherent to the environment of a golf course in New Mexico. Photo Kanemoto


The plaintiffs passed at least three warning signs labeled “RATTLESNAKE HABITAT”. The signs were located along the cart path and native wild areas. Nonetheless, the plaintiffs testified they did not notice them that day or on any prior occasion.

The investigation also found the husband hit two bad tee shots into the native terrain. It was his second errant ball the couple was searching for when the wife was bitten. They both hiked about 30 yards off the fairway, up an elevated rocky slope, through desert brush and natural signs of wildlife, when the rattlesnake bit the woman on her ankle.

As expert witness, Michael Johnstone enumerated standards of care for both players and the golf course. He cited USGA Rules for Ball Lost or Out of Bounds that included options for relief, and specific rules pertaining to Animals Interfering with PlayStatus of Snake, and Dangerous Situation; Rattlesnake or Bees. He emphasized players must make fundamental choices about the environment and safety at all times. He also demonstrated that USGA rules include wildlife as an inherent part of the sport. Attorneys for the golf course did not expect such a thorough assessment of the incident and were very happy with the settlement achieved.

golf cart accident wrongful death tournament

In Northern California, a 64-year-old volunteer at a charity golf tournament fell off the back of a golf cart and eventually died of her injuries. The woman’s family filed suit for wrongful death against the charity organizer, golf course management, sponsors and two young persons who operated the golf cart.

The event organizers had set up several stops along the golf course where guests were served alcoholic beverages by sponsors and took part in activities like hula hoop.

A young woman who was asked to volunteer the night before the event was assigned various tasks including serving alcohol. She and a young man were purportedly instructed to run an errand with another young man. All three rode in a two-seat golf cart and stopped at several drinking and activity locations along the golf course. They stated they did not drink, but picked up other volunteers who may have been drinking.

At some point, the young woman sat on one male’s lap sideways and steered the vehicle as he operated the pedals. Four people were crammed into the two seats while two more women, including the 64-year-old decedent, stood on the back of the golf cart where golf clubs are normally carried. The older woman allegedly fell off while the golf cart was moving and hit her head on the concrete cart path. None of the occupants saw how she fell and there were no bystanders who witnessed the fatal injury.

The firm of Michael S. Johnstone, AIA, was retained to review the golf cart accident and the circumstances surrounding the fatal injury. As an expert witness in golf cart accidents at tournaments before, Michael Johnstone focused upon issues of particular significance. Normally, there are specific industry guidelines for golf carts and golf carts paths, while tournaments and other events have additional rules and restrictions. Factors in this case included, but were not limited to: training volunteers in golf cart operation; volunteer supervision; vehicle maintenance and checkout process; exceeding vehicle occupancy; exceeding maxium load; serving of alcohol and consumption of alcohol; speed, incline and weather; required clothing and footwear; securing vehicle after an accident; accident reporting and witness statements; photographs of the vehicle and documenting its location. The case settled prior to going to trial.

A 69-year-old plaintiff was driving a golf cart while playing with her women’s golf group. While approaching the 8th green, she exited the fairway and drove off a curb that she could not see. The golf cart slammed onto the cart path and crossed over onto a steep embankment that led to a stand of trees. Unable to stop or steer, the woman instinctively jumped before the golf cart crashed into the trees. She survived, but sustained serious injuries to her hip, shoulder and knees, along with post traumatic stress.

Expert witness Michael S. Johnstone, AIA, was retained to investigate the golf cart accident. No mechanical issues were suspected. Weather, alcohol and medication were not factors. Witnesses testified by deposition that the golf course management had instructed community members to drive closer to the greens than usual to expedite play and help rehabilitate the turf. Signs that normally directed cart traffic to exit the fairway 50 yards sooner had been removed. The signs were immediately replaced after the accident. In addition, the manager expressed he always had concerns about the danger posed by the embankment on the other side of the path. After the accident, he promptly erected temporary stakes until a permanent guardrail was installed.

The investigation concluded there was a confluence of issues that caused the plaintiff’s accident… The plaintiff followed the explicit instructions of the golf course, but had no way to anticipate the peril that was created or that serious injury or death may result.

The site inspection revealed the plaintiff obeyed the golf course’s new policy, exiting the fairway at the last opportunity before reaching a bunker near the green. The route went over a large swale and down a steep slope of 19 degrees. From that angle, the grass rough concealed a 6-1/2” curb before dropping onto the cart path. To the plaintiff, however, it appeared there was a smooth transition like other areas along the fairway without any curb.

The investigation concluded there was a confluence of issues that caused the plaintiff’s accident. The intentional removal of directional signs changed the location where golf carts normally exited the fairway. By instructing players to drive closer to the green, some drivers reasonably exited in front of the bunker, sending them over the curb. The line of travel inadvertently concealed the sudden drop and caused a loss of control. Finally, the area directly across the cart path had another steep slope of 21 degrees, consisting of unmaintained dirt and gravel that afforded no traction. The latter was a dangerous condition previously known to the golf course and was exacerbated by temporarily routing golf carts over the curb directly into the area. The plaintiff followed the explicit instructions of the golf course, but had no way to anticipate the peril that was created, or that serious injury or death may result.

Routine maintenance, periodic rehabilitation or renovations often require the rerouting of golf cart paths. Unfortunately, accidents like this one may result if diligence toward safety is not observed. Tee boxes and greens may also vary from the intention of the golf course architect when short term modifications are in place. Ropes, warning signs, and other markings are recommended to inform players of temporary course changes. However, superintendents and groundskeeping staff may inadvertently create peril due to overlapping conditions. Many factors contribute to an accident, such as the experience and attention of the player. Yet, liability often hinges on whether a particular danger was foreseeable and preventable in the first place.