Top Golf becomes a top nuisance

A view from the upper deck at Top Golf

Justin Jouvenal of the Washington Post relays a story about the TopGolf driving range in Alexandria, Va. causing a stir amongst parishioners at an adjacent church due to wayward golf balls.

Like something out of the Old Testament, an affliction from on high has rained down on Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Fairfax County: golf balls.

The source is not divine, but the adjacent TopGolf, a state-of-the-art entertainment complex that features a 76-bay, two-level driving range. When a duffer hits a slice just right, balls can zing about 350 yards over protective netting at the back edge of the range, located off of South Van Dorn Street, and fly right onto the grounds of Faith Evangelical as if it were the 18th green.

The church is so teed off that members have invoked an obscure bit of Virginia law to seek relief. They petitioned a Fairfax court for a special grand jury to decide whether TopGolf could be prosecuted as an ongoing public nuisance.

Errant golf balls raining down upon unsuspecting individuals is not a new story.  There are countless negligence lawsuits associated with mishit golf balls that exist in the field of golf law.  In fact, it’s probably the single most common legal issue that affects the game (and business) of golf.  What makes this story unique is the fact that the parishioners from the Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church are banding together to initiate an ongoing public nuisance suit against the driving range.

As a side note, the author of this article has actually hit golf balls at this exact TopGolf location in Alexandria several times.  And while it seems exceedingly difficult to hit a golf ball which is implanted with a microchip, and therefore flies much shorter than, say, a Titleist ProV1, it is clearly not impossible.  Members of the church have been physically hit by errant TopGolf balls on multiple occasions.

As a result, the church apparently decided not to bring direct negligence suits against TopGolf because the extenuating legal fees could bankrupt the parish.  Instead, they are using an obscure Virginia law that allows five or more citizens to make a complaint to the circuit court about a continuing public nuisance, and the court is required to convene a special grand jury to investigate. Nine members of the church have signed on.  In this way, the church can obtain a legal remedy to the problem without expending the funds necessary to carry out protracted litigation.

Unfortunately for TopGolf, it appears as though this has been an ongoing battle with the church.  TopGolf is not blissfully unaware of such problems with wayward shots from its customers, but rather has gone to great lengths to prevent such accidents:

TopGolf chief executive Joe Vrankin said the complex has done everything possible to corral balls, including spending about $350,000 on possible solutions and working closely with the church.

Vrankin ticked off a list: Warning signs have been installed, tees have been lowered and the upper deck of the range is closed when the church has Sunday services or special events. When TopGolf replaced a range on the site in 2005, it raised the height of the netting around the facility to more than 100 feet.

The attorney for Fairfax County could decide to prosecute the TopGolf case or decline. The case also could be transferred to a special counsel for resolution.  If the sides cannot work out their differences, there will be a hearing on the issues on January 23, 2012.  Should it come to that, Golf Law Journal will report back with the findings from such hearing.

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