Dangerous Instrumentality As Applied To Incidents Involving Golf Carts In Florida

By: William P. Dilley, II., Esq.

The dangerous instrumentality doctrine imposes strict and vicarious liability upon the owner of a motor vehicle who voluntarily entrusts that motor vehicle to an individual whose negligent operation causes damage to another, and operation of a vehicle falls within the strict liability doctrine because a vehicle is dangerous to others when used for its designed purpose.  The dangerous instrumentality doctrine is historically a creation of the courts, not the legislature, and may be invoked or extended where an instrumentality of known quantities is so peculiarly dangerous in its operation to justify the doctrine.  Florida is unique in that it is the only state to have adopted this rule by judicial decree.
 
In Meister v. Fisher, 462 So.2d 1071 (Fla. 1984), the Florida Supreme Court held that a golf cart was a dangerous instrumentality.  In reaching that decision, the Court pointed to three different justifications for the decision: golf carts fit the statutory definition of a “motor vehicle,” golf carts were extensively regulated by statute, and record evidence regarding the causes and consequences of golf cart accidents.  The Court justified expansion of the dangerous instrumentality doctrine based upon the record before them:
 
“As the district court itself noted, Florida’s tremendous tourist and retirement communities make golf carts and golf courses extremely prevalent in this state.  And there is evidence in this record from an expert who stated that he has investigated numerous accidents involving golf carts that “the types of accidents caused by the operation of the carts are due to the particular design features of the carts and are identical to those involving other motor vehicle accidents”
 
Meister at 1073. 
 
While the owner of a golf cart’s vicarious liability is virtually unlimited under the doctrine, these cases are defensible.  Firstly, it is, or should be, the practice of golf facilities to have guests or members sign an agreement containing an exculpatory clause prior to using the facilities.  Florida Courts are clear that exculpatory clauses are enforceable where and to the extent that the intention to be relieved of liability was made clear and unequivocal in the contract.  The wording must be so clear and understandable that an ordinary and knowledgeable party will know what he is contracting away.  This particular issue has not been considered by the appellate courts of Florida with respect to golf carts, however, the Massachusetts Court of Appeals has held:
 
“A golf club member who died in an accident while driving his golf cart along a temporary path on the golf course was bound by the release and indemnity clause in his membership handbook, even though the clause was contained in a handbook among many other rules, regulations, and provisions, and there was no evidence that the member had ever read the provision or knew of its existence, either before he became a member of the club, or during the 10 years of his membership.”
 
Post v. Belmont Country Club, Inc., 60 Mass.App.Ct. 645 (2004).
 
Further, it has been held in Florida that where two people are jointly entrusted with the possession of a dangerous instrumentality, they are co-bailees or joint adventurers and cannot impute the negligent operation of the instrumentality by either of them, or recover damages for injuries to either of them, arising therefrom.  The claim of one golf cart driver against the owner of a golf cart for injuries caused by his playing partner has been specifically evaluated by courts in this state.  In Ferrer v. FGC Enterprises, Inc., 805 So.2d 967 (Fla. 3d DCA 2001), the Third District Court of Appeals held that members of a golf league using a golf cart owned by the Fontainebleau Golf Club were co-bailees or joint adventurers.  Therefore, the court held that the owner of the golf course was not liable under the dangerous instrumentality doctrine for injuries sustained when one member was struck by the golf cart operated by the other member.
 
In summary, the current state of the law in Florida is such that owners of golf carts face virtually unlimited vicarious liability for injuries caused by permissive users of golf carts.  However, these cases are defensible depending on the prudence of the owner of the cart and/or facility, and the particular factual scenario in which an injured party claims the facility is liable.