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BlogsPublications | December 29, 2016
3 minute read

COA: when it comes to driving a golf cart, the applicable standard of care is ordinary negligence, not reckless misconduct

The safe operation of a motorized cart on a golf course is governed by the ordinary standard of care in simple negligence claims, and not the “reckless misconduct” standard applicable to recreational activities, said the Michigan Court of Appeals in Bertin v. Mann, No. 328885. The use of a golf cart is not an inherent component of the game of golf, as its elimination would not change the fundamental nature of the sport.

Kenneth Bertin and Douglas Mann were golfing together on May 22, 2013 at the Farmington Hills Golf Club. As Mr. Bertin was walking around the 17th green to where his ball was lying, Mr. Mann drove the golf cart into him, striking him twice. The first impact knocked Bertin over, after which the cart ran over his leg, injuring him.

Bertin sued Mann for negligence, alleging that Mann breached his duty to safely operate the golf cart in order to ensure Bertin’s safety. Mann replied by denying Bertin’s allegations of negligence, and by defending that the event was unforeseeable and that Bertin’s own negligence caused his injuries. The parties disputed the applicable standard of care: Bertin argued that it should be ordinary negligence, while Mann argued that it should be “reckless misconduct” under Ritchie-Gamester because the parties were co-participants in a recreational activity when the incident occurred. The trial court ultimately sided with Mann, and the jury entered a verdict in his favor.

The Court of Appeals agreed with Bertin. It clarified that Ritchie-Gamester does not establish that any conduct of a co-participant that causes injury during a recreational activity must meet the reckless misconduct standard. Rather, the standard was adopted specifically based on the usual expectation of participants that liability will arise with regard to conduct that exceeds the normal bounds of the conduct associated with the activity.

Bertin’s argument that a standard of ordinary negligence should apply was based on two lines of reasoning. First, Bertin asserted that a golf cart is a “motor vehicle” and thus subject to the civil liability provisions under the Motor Vehicle Code. The court rejected that argument, because the potentially applicable civil liability statute applies only against vehicle owners and operators. Since “operator” is defined by control of a vehicle on a highway, the court found Mann to be neither an owner nor an operator.

Second, Bertin argued that the reckless misconduct standard in Ritchie-Gamester should not apply, because motorized golf carts are not an inherent component of the game of golf. On this point, the Court of Appeals agreed with Bertin, concluding that risks related to golf carts are not inherent risks of the game of golf. Being a case of first impression, the court used dictionary definitions and case law from other jurisdictions to guide its analysis.

The court’s reasoning was essentially threefold. First, the United States Supreme Court ruled in PGA Tour, Inc. v. Martin that walking is not an essential attribute of golf, and that the use of golf carts would not “fundamentally alter the nature” of the game of golf in the context of the context of an Americans with Disabilities Act claim. Second, the United States Golf Association’s Rules of Golf do not refer to golf carts. Third, no evidence in this case was presented to show that Farmington Hills Golf Club required the use of golf carts.

Thus finding that the trial court applied an incorrect standard of care, the court vacated the jury’s verdict, reversed the trial court’s verdict, and remanded the case for further proceedings.