Modified Golf Cart Lawsuits and Regulation

Over the last ten years I’ve seen this scenario several times: client is driving or a passenger in a golf cart. The golf cart has been modified – the area in the back that was originally designed for clubs now has a back seat for two or three additional passengers. Sometimes the cart has larger wheels and fancy trim. The cart was never sold to be used on a golf course – instead, it was sold to be used in a resort or neighborhood. While driving the modified cart the driver takes a sharp turn and a passenger or even the driver himself is flung outside the cart and sufferers a catastrophic or fatal injury.

Last week attorney Lindsay Joyner wrote an article over at Abnormal Use. Her article, Pennsylvania Golf Cart Litigation, talks about the increased use of modified golf carts or “alternative road vehicles” and the corresponding increase of injuries from passenger ejection or overturned carts. Joyner’s article discussed Lynn v. Yahama Golf-Cart, where the Court denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss Plaintiff’s defective design claims. As Joyner observes, the court ruled there was sufficient evidence for a jury to find there was a foreseeable risk of ejection when a cart is sharply turned, there were alternative designs available at the time Yahama constructed the subject cart, and “a jury could reasonably conclude ‘non-golf-course’ uses were entirely foreseeable.”

This danger isn’t new. In 1998 the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) were amended to include classification of “low-speed vehicles”.[1]  This extension of regulation took place following the recognition by NHTSA that more and more golf carts were being used on public roads.  The golf cart industry fought the regulation and self-imposed a speed limit of 18 M.P.H. to avoid being subject to the regulations.

The FMVSS defined “low-speed vehicles” (or “LSVs”) as vehicles capable of achieving a top speed of more than 20 MPH.[2]  Golf carts that are capable of reaching this speed threshold because of original equipment gearing and motor, or post-sale modifications are considered LSVs.  The FMVSS equipment requirements for LSVs include the requirement that the vehicle be equipped with head lights, taillights, turn signals, and seatbelts, to name a few of the requirements.[3]

While these features may be standard on LSVs manufactured as such, most modified golf carts do not meet the FMVSS requirements – because they are specifically designed and built to have a top speed of less than 20 MPH.  As a result, most modified golf carts do not have seat belts or other features to protect occupants.

This is old data, but when we drilled down into this issue several years ago we had data from 2005, which showed sales of LSVs and golf cars totaled more than $2 billion.  There were 620,000 LSVs sold that year.[4]  The demand for LSVs is being driven by several factors including an increase in gated or planned communities designed to radiate from central shopping facilities which are ideally suited for non-automobile traffic; the increase in state legislation making LSVs “street legal”; and increased fuel costs.

Most states also have statutes addressing golf carts and when they can be used on public roads. For example, in Florida, Statute §316.212 requires that golf carts are allowed on public roads where the posted speed limit is less than 35 MPH, does not require the driver to have a license, and allows drivers who are only 14 years old.  For LSVs, Florida requires a driver’s license and the vehicle must be registered and insured in accordance with §320.02, Florida Statutes.

As reported last week by the Daniel Island News in a story about modified golf carts, according to the CPSC there were approximately 15,000 golf cart related injuries requiring emergency room treatment in the U.S. each year.  As noted in the article, “Based on CPSC statistics, roughly 40% of golf cart accidents involve a person falling out of the car, and many of these accidents involved young children.”

Despite the injury and body count cases like Lynn, where a plaintiff sues a modified golf cart manufacturer on a design defect theory, are extremely rare. In states like Florida which have comparative fault, there is usually a strong defense based on the driver’s, a parent’s, or even an owner of the cart’s fault. Moreover, although there are alternative designs, the defense will argue that the vast majority of modified carts are the same – they do not have seat belts or other structures to protect occupants from being ejected.

These same arguments and theories echo from years ago when they were raised by Honda in the face of thousands of injuries and deaths with three wheel ATVs. As injuries mounted, the CPSC began an investigation that eventually resulted in agreed Consent Decree with Honda, whereby there were massive changes to the way ATVs were manufactured and sold. The changes included a temporary prohibition on the sale of three wheeled ATVs and dramatic warnings that children under the age of 16 shouldn’t drive ATVs. Although these changed didn’t eliminate all of the safety issues involved with ATVs, they saved countless lives during the years following the CPSC’s actions.

Can the same thing happen with modified golf carts? Perhaps, if like with ATVs the increased popularity of modified carts continues to result in a tidal wave of increased injuries and deaths, it just might.

[1] FMVSS 571.500

[2] To be a low-speed vehicle pursuant to FMVSS the top speed attainable in 1 mile must be more than 20 MPH but not more than 25 MPH.

[3] Once a vehicle is determined to be a low-speed vehicle, it must be outfitted with: headlamps; front and rear turn signal lamps; taillamps; stop lamps; reflex reflectors; a drivers’ side exterior mirror and either a passenger side exterior mirror or an interior mirror; a parking brake; a windshield; a VIN number; and seat belts.

[4] International Competitive Assessments, Golf Car-type vehicles and the Emerging Market for Small, Task-Oriented Vehicles in the United States; Trends 2000-2005, Forecasts to 2008.