Ask anyone who has spent four hours on an immaculate green lawn, swinging a club wildly and chasing a small white ball from sandy ditch to wooded pines, and they will tell you: golf is a simultaneously blissful and frustrating sport.
But few golfers have experienced the highs and lows of the game like Don DiMartino has. On July 19, DiMartino was playing in an American Liver Foundation charity event at Mohegan Sun’s Pautipaug Golf Club in Baltic, Connecticut. As his group approached the tee box for the par-3 17th hole, they were greeted by a handsome new Ford Escape and signs promising that anyone who hit a hole-in-one would receive a three-year lease for it.
To his surprise, DiMartino aced the hole. But his jubilation was quickly tempered by Girard Ford’s refusal to deliver his prize. Girard had purchased an insurance policy with J. Ryder Group for the offer, but the policy only covered a shot of 170 yards. DiMartino’s hole-in-one, which he hit from the standard tees, was only 157
This case presents a scenario that many law students discuss in their 1L Contracts class, but do not expect to encounter in real life. It raises a number of fundamental contract law issues. First, did Girard Ford assume the risk for failing to disclose the conditions of the prize on its signs about the 170 yard minimum? If they did, then a court might find this to be a unilateral mistake, for which only Girard is responsible. If there were any caveats to the prize, a reasonable person would expect to find them – or at least an asterisk – on the sign. But there was no such disclaimer on Girard Ford’s signs. And although a duty to disclose is rarely imposed, in this case Girard had an obligation to disclose the length requirement, for no golfer could meet a condition of which he was not aware.
Second, as a sponsor of the tournament who reaped the benefits of its publicity, was Girard responsible for ensuring that the 17th hole was set up in compliance with its insurance policy’s requirements for the prize? Because DiMartino hit from the standard tees, the problem was one of set up: no one would be eligible for the prize unless he somehow knew of the 170 yard minimum and insisted on hitting from the professional tees, separate from the rest of the golfers. The court could easily find that Girard implicitly promised that any shot from the standard tees – from which most players in the tournament hit and which was adjacent to the signage – would satisfy the length requirements.
Finally, if the DiMartino were to sue Girard for his prize, would Girard be estopped from claiming that DiMartino did not meet the 170 yard minimum because DiMartino had reasonably relied on the prize? Immediately following the tournament, but before he was told that Girard was not giving him the leased Ford Explorer, DiMartino sold his old Nissan Altima on Craigslist. Whether he tried to rescind the sale offer or chose to buy a new car, DiMartino would be adversely affected due to his reliance. For equitable reasons, the court might choose to estop Girard from raising the minimum shot length requirement, based upon the theory of detrimental reliance.
In the end, thankfully, legal theories became irrelevant because the people involved did the right thing. The American Liver Foundation promised to provide DiMartino with the three-year lease that he won “fair and square” – though they did admit that they would go through a different dealer.
– Kimberly Miner is a 2L at Harvard Law School.