Is Golf Cart Liability a Ticking Time Bomb? Part One

Aug 18, 2017

(Editor’s Note: What follows is part one of a five-part exclusive series on golf cart liability, including relevant case law and analysis.)
By Thomas H. Sawyer, Ed.D. Professor Emeritus, Kinesiology, Recreation, and Sport, Indiana State University, and Tonya L. Sawyer, Ph.D., NCAA Compliance Coordinator, Indiana State University
A famous quote by Mark Twain “Golf is a good walk spoiled”, inspired John Feinstein to write the highly acclaimed bestseller “A Good Walk Spoiled” . What would Mr. Twain say today? The golf cart has eliminated most of the walking on golf courses and dramatically increased the revenue side of the ledger. The majority of golfers today now ride golf carts rather than walk the course.
Lang (2000) suggests “golf is such a difficult sport the mere negligence in hitting the ball often does not give rise to liability.” However, negligence in driving a golf cart will sustain a complaint. Golf course managers/owners need to be aware of the liability attached to golf carts and develop policies and procedures for the use and maintenance of golf carts.
According to Watson, et al. (2008) “an estimated 147,696 (95% CI=144,404; 150,987) injuries, involving individuals aged 2 months to 96 years, were treated in EDs in the U.S. for golf cart-related injuries during the study period. Injuries to children (aged<16) constituted 31.2% of the cases. The most common type of injury was soft tissue damage (47.7%). Patients required hospitalization in 7.8% of the cases. Falling from a golf cart was the most common cause of injury (38.3%). Of golf cart-related injuries with a reported location, 70.3% occurred at sports facilities, 15.2% occurred on streets or public property, and 14.5% occurred around a home or farm. The number of golf cart-related injuries increased steadily each year, with an increase of 132.3% over the 17-year study period.”   What is the Problem?   Golf carts bring all the fun of driving a car without any of the rules of the road. While this combination usually makes for a carefree day on the links or a quick cruise through a retirement community, golf cart accidents can actually lead to serious injury. Golf carts were meant for just that: golf. However, their expanded use has led to an increase in injuries across the United States.   Even though golf carts are used as a substitute for cars in many settings and can reach speeds of up to 40 MPH, they are not intended for use on roads or required to have the same rigorous safety standards as other vehicles. In fact, the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) do not even require golf carts to have seat belts. These lax requirements have resulted in many golf carts being built with low safety standards.   A golf cart is essentially a tiny car with all of the safety features removed. Think about it: golf carts lack doors, sides, bumpers, airbags, seatbelts, and usually have a plastic body. Considering that they are commonly driven at high speeds across rough terrain, it is surprising that there is absolutely no license requirement for driving one. In addition, that does not even take into account the normal maintenance required to ensure that all components, such as brakes or even the seats are functioning. It does not help that alcohol and golf often go hand in hand, meaning many drivers might be under the influence of alcohol. At the end of the day, there is very little in the way of regulation when it comes to golf carts, which makes it easy for the negligence of others to cause injury.   How Do Golf Cart Accidents Occur?   In cases where the vehicle’s design or maintenance may be to blame, golf cart accidents can be caused by:   Tip-overs — Because of their light weight and small tires, golf carts can tip over easily. Additionally, they are often used off-road or on uneven terrain that can cause them to become unbalanced.   No restraints — Most golf carts do not come equipped with seat belts or restraints. This increases the risk that the driver or passengers may fall out, the most common cause of injury and death in golf cart accidents.   Open sides — Golf carts are designed without doors so they are easy to get in and out of. However, this feature also allows for occupants to be thrown from the vehicle.   Lack of maintenance — Many companies who own and operate golf carts do not have a vehicle maintenance system in place. As a result, crucial parts such as brakes, seats and engines may become worn out and contribute to accidents.     In cases where the driver is at fault, golf cart accidents may result from:   Reckless driving / joyriding   Underestimating the cart’s power / abilities   Inattentiveness, distraction or negligence   Uneven ground (potholes, hills or rocks)   Drinking and driving   Common Golf Cart Accident Injuries     Golf cart accidents typically cause soft tissue injuries; however, severe accidents can be fatal. Between 2001 and 2014, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) reported 33 fatalities involving carts on golf courses alone. Other injuries associated with golf cart accidents include:   Cuts, lacerations and bruises   Fractured / broken bones   Brain injuries   Concussions   Subdural hemorrhage     The most common type of golf cart injury is soft tissue damage (bruising). Since there is no side protection, bone breaks and fractures can easily occur. Also, this lack of protection can lead to severe brain damage in the event that a person is thrown from a golf cart at high speed. Concussions and even fatalities are a possibility when it comes to golf cart accidents. Rollovers are the single biggest risk of serious injury. Golf courses are littered with hills.   Golf Cart Safety Fundamentals   The Golf Course Managers Association (GCOA), Golf Course Superintendent Association of America (GCSAA), National Golf Course Owners Association (NGCOA), United States Golf Association (USGA), and United States Consumer Product and Safety Commission and others have suggested that drivers of golf carts would benefit by brushing up on the following safety fundamentals:   Never drive recklessly or joy ride. Drive courteously.   Obey all vehicle traffic laws and rules of the road.   Never drive intoxicated or under the influence of any drug or narcotic.   Avoid distractions while operating the golf cart just as you would in an automobile.   Be safe and attentive -- avoid talking, texting, or reading while driving, reaching for objects, applying makeup or eating.   Golf carts should be equipped with seat belts for driver and all passengers.   The driver and all occupants should utilize available seatbelts anytime the vehicle is in use.   Only carry the number of passengers for which there are seats.   Drivers and all passengers should keep all body parts (arms, legs, and feet) inside cart while vehicle is in motion, except when signaling a turn.   Do not allow anyone to ride standing in the vehicle or on the back platform of the vehicle. Do not put vehicle in motion until all passengers are safely seated inside vehicle.   Operate the vehicle from the driver’s side only.   Always use hand signals to indicate your intent to turn due to the small size and limited visibility of the turn signals on a golf cart.   Check blind spots before turning. When making a left hand turn, yield to the thru traffic lane and merge into that lane before turning left.   Never make a left hand turn from the golf cart lane.   Carefully turn and look behind golf cart before backing up.   Avoid sharp turns at maximum speed, and drive straight up and down slopes to reduce the risk of passenger ejections and/or rollover.   Avoid excessive speed, sudden starts, stops and fast turns.   Reduce speed due to driving conditions, especially hills or other inclines or declines, blind corners, intersections, pedestrians and inclement weather.   Do not leave keys in golf cart while unattended and make sure the parking brake is set.   Always yield to pedestrians and be cognizant of motor vehicles.   Use extreme caution in inclement weather. Although a golf cart may shield you from the rain, it may not protect you from a lightning strike.     The Last Word   Golf carts were designed for golf. They are recreational vehicles to be driven at a slow speed, away from traffic, along grassy paths. With poor brake assembly, no seatbelts, and lack of other safety features, they do not include the normal crash protection an automobile employs. The open-air design makes it very easy for a passenger to fall out, as was the case recently when a young child tragically lost her life from such a fall. Some vehicles are being up-fitted these days to make them “road legal,” but those often-seen cruising through the neighborhood are not typically so equipped. And most have not been maintained in the way people would normally attend to an automobile.   Finally, the majority of successful golf cart injury cases involve golf cart passengers. Which means suing the driver who is typically a good enough friend to be out on the golf course with you playing a round of golf, right? This often means suing that friend. Does this mean your friend is going to have to pay you out of his pocket? Generally, the kind of cases like this that lawyers take involves defendants with insurance; so you are really suing your friend in name only. But will your friend still be your friend once he/she is sued by you?

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