Your Money: Harmless recreation? Mistime a tackle or slice a drive today and you could lose thousands of pounds

Michael Drewett looks at how to insure against unintentional injuries to other people

On an average Bank Holiday weekend, as many as 70 people might be hospitalised as a result of accidents on golf courses. Even that is a conservative guesstimate, based on recently published Government figures of 60,000 golf course hospitalisations in the last seven years.

But the risks of a seemingly harmless recreation extend beyond the victim. If you injure someone - whether on the golf course, tennis court, cricket pitch or even while cycling or rollerblading - increasingly, you face the risk of being sued for damages. As a result, you could end up with a bill for compensation, or even just the legal expenses of defending yourself, and these can run into thousands of pounds.

A landmark legal judgment four years ago really brought the issue into the public eye. Insolvency practitioner John Shipley sliced a tee shot at Buckpool golf club in Scotland and hit Paul Lewis, a lawyer, who was putting on an entirely separate hole. Mr Lewis lost his power of speech for three weeks and later developed epileptic fits. The significance of the ruling was that the errant golfer's relatively high handicap of 24 did not excuse him the consequences of inadequate technique. Indeed, it had the opposite effect. Sheriff Noel McPartlin said: "Less skillful players are more likely to hit a bad shot." As a result, negligence was established, and it cost Mr Shipley pounds 15,500.

Last summer, Liverpool county court awarded pounds 24,000 to Derek Horton, who was hit in the face by a ball and lost an eye. In his case, the "guilty" party was covered by insurance, but thousands of golfers are not.

Golfplan, the country's largest provider of specialist golf policies, includes pounds 2m cover for damage to others or property. Ron Channon, founder of the Bristol-based insurer, said: "It is not just a golf ball bearing down on you like a cruise missile that is the problem. There are lots of claims for lost teeth, which are very expensive. One man, for example, after fluffing a shot, just went through the motions of his swing again. By then, his partner had walked on, and he was hit full in the face by the follow-through."

Most insurance bought by sports enthusiasts and for other recreations focuses on equipment theft, the cost of medical treatment or loss of income as a result of injury. But the extent of liability cover is also important.

Curious as it may seem, you could already be covered for injuring others under your household contents policy - assuming you have one. Look for clauses about public or third-party liability and/or legal fees. Even if the policy does not mention specific sports or pastimes, you may be covered simply because they are not specifically excluded.

However, it is dangerous to rely on being automatically covered - particularly since insurers may be about to tighten up, putting in more exclusions, afterthe recent case of rugby player Ben Smoldon. This highlighted the fact that it is not just the sportsmen or women themselves who can be held responsible. Mr Smoldon, who became paralysed as a result of injuries during a rugby game, sued the referee for pounds 1m for failing to take action to stop repeated collapsing of the scrum. The court found in his favour.

The Association of British Insurers points out, however, that claims are unlikely to be upheld if "reasonable precautions" appear to have been taken by those in charge, or by a club itself. For example, spraining an ankle on a muddy football pitch is more likely to be attributed to bad luck with the weather than poor groundsmanship.

Even so, Malcolm Tarling, a spokesman for the ABI, adds: "This aspect of a 'duty of care' is important. Even in a cricket match on the local green, the umpire, however amateur he is, must consider his responsibilities. An out-of-practice guest player in a Sunday game may well have recourse to a claim if he were to be injured by the opposition's fast bowler as a result of repeated appeals against bad light being ignored."

The ABI's advice for anyone playing a sport is: assess the risks involved, do anything reasonable to minimise them, and check on your insurance position. Check whether you are covered under your home contents policy, or under any insurance via the club or federation concerned. If not, consider a specialist policy.

Of course, most recreation-related insurance claims still relate to more mundane incidents such as broken legs, holiday curtailments and theft or personal accidents. Cardiff-based WorldCover Direct, for example, offers annual travel insurance for an unlimited number of trips - including those in the UK as long as they are more than 25 miles from home. Comprehensive cover costs pounds 75 for an individual, pounds 110 for a couple and pounds 120 for a family of four.

There are supplements for specialist sports. Many mildly hazardous pastimes such as horse riding are already included, while some exotic occupations such as gorilla trekking are covered for only pounds 16 extra.

Parascending over water is included in the normal rates, but paragliding over land is regarded as an unacceptable risk altogether. Subaqua diving has just been added as a new option. For a sport regarded by many insurers as well into the "hazardous" category, pounds 27 a year for diving down to 30 metres is not uncompetitive.

WorldCover chief executive Jonathan Biles said: "Diving involves a lot of expensive equipment, and illness or injury can curtail a whole trip. With all the horror stories, insurance is important. Believe me, you do not want to see the bill for putting anyone in a decompression chamber for two days in the United States."

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