For me, golf carts stir up long ago memories. I remember begging my dad to let me be his caddy just so that I could drive the golf carts for rent. Golf carts, although initially built in the 1930s as a way to transport disabled golfers from shot to shot on the course while able-bodied individuals walked with a caddy, are no longer used only to carry two golfers and their golf clubs. Today, golf carts are alternative road vehicles, saving people from using their gas-powered SUVs or even their legs to traverse their gated communities, tailgate spots, business complexes, or school campuses. Like most things in our highly personalized economy, golf carts no longer only come in a one-size-fits-all style; rather, color and the number of rows for seating passengers are among some of the features which may be customized to fit the needs of the purchaser. As options have increased, so too have injuries and, in turn, the amount of litigation.
According to one study, the number of golf cart injuries increased an astonishing 132% from 1990-2006. Such injuries usually stemmed from passenger ejection or overturned carts. In one such case, the parties settled soon after the court granted summary judgment to defendants on some of the Plaintiff’s claims. That case was Lynn v. Yamaha Golf-Car Company. On August 16, 2012, the parties settled for an undisclosed amount following the Western District of Pennsylvania’s order granting partial summary judgment in favor of the defendants as to Plaintiffs’ post-sale duty to warn and failure to warn claims. In that case, the thirteen-year-old Plaintiff Lynn was riding as a seated passenger in a Model Year 1999 Yamaha Model G16 golf car. Plaintiff Lynn’s friend had been operating the G16 for less than one quarter of a mile along a rural and infrequently traveled road at the time of the accident. The accident occurred when Lynn’s friend made a u-turn, and as she was turning left, Lynn was ejected over the hip restraint of the cart (although the G16 did not tip, rollover, skid, or lose traction). Lynn sustained serious injuries.
Plaintiffs contended that the G16 was defective in its design as it failed to prevent passenger ejection. However, Yamaha argued that the G16 was properly was properly designed, properly manufactured, and safe for its intended use because it was never designed, manufactured, or intended to be used as a mode of general transportation.
In addition to finding summary judgment was proper as to Plaintiffs’ warning claims, the Court determined Plaintiffs produced enough evidence to show there was foreseeable risk of ejection when the golf cart was turned sharply at or near maximum speed, particularly when children are passengers, and that there were two reasonable alternative designs available at the time the G16 was constructed. Finally, the Court was not convinced by Yamaha’s argument that Plaintiffs were using the golf cart for an unintended use. The Court stated that the intended use of the vehicle could not be limited to cut-turf golf course surfaces. The Court found, rather, that golf carts are intended to be used to convey persons from one point to another at a relatively low speed and that a jury could reasonably conclude “non-golf-course” uses were entirely foreseeable.
Based on these findings, it appears that at least in the Western District of Pennsylvania, holding onto the original use of a golf cart will not be a winning argument. However, if the number of injuries keeps increasing as the uses for golf carts are broadened, each case will be factually intensive, and it will be interesting to see how courts treat these claims going forward.