A Golf Cart Injury Gets Sent to Trial

McKeown v. American Golf Club, 462 N.J. Super. 339 (App. Div. 2020). Plaintiff McKeown was playing golf with defendant Robinson and his son-in-law, defendant Capavanni, and a fourth golfer, at Beaver Brook Country Club, which was operated by defendant American Golf Club (“AGC”). McKeown and Capavanni each rented golf carts. At some point, Robinson, who is from Scotland, where golf carts are not commonly used, drove Capavanni’s cart. That cart pinned McKeown between his own cart and the cart driven by Robinson, badly injuring McKeown. Robinson asserted that a rangefinder, unsecured on a shelf near the steering wheel of Capavanni’s cart, fell underneath the brake pedal and prevented Robinson from stopping the cart.

McKeown sued AGC, Robinson, and Capavanni. All issues were resolved except for whether Capavanni negligently entrusted the golf cart to Robinson. The Law Division granted summary judgment in favor of Capavanni, but today the Appellate Division reversed. Judge Fisher wrote the panel’s opinion.

The Law Division had relied on the rental agreement that Capavanni signed with AGC when he took out the golf cart. Judge Fisher discussed that agreement at some length, as discussed below. But his primary point was that, “[w]ith or without that agreement, Capavanni had a common law obligation to refrain from entrusting the golf cart to an incompetent operator.” There was a fact dispute as to whether Robinson had experience with golf carts. Thus, summary judgment was improper.

Judge Fisher then identified errors in the Law Division’s view of the cart rental agreement. That agreement required Capavanni to use care in operating the golf cart. The Law Division believed that the renter’s duty ran only “to the Golf Club.”

But Judge Fisher observed that the Club was not the only beneficiary of the rental agreement. “Barring any compelling evidence to the contrary, the law would assume from such an agreement that a party who allows another to use some instrumentality in exchange for both a fee and a promise that the instrumentality’s use will be limited, not only seeks to insulate itself from liability but also seeks to prevent incidents that might generate the reason for seeking indemnification in the first place.” Thus, McKeown was a foreseeable beneficiary of the rental agreement, since he was playing in the same foursome with the cart renter, Capavanni.

The Law Division also ruled that the fact that the rangefinder fell and blocked the golf cart’s brake from operating was unforeseeable. That too was error, the Appellate Division ruled. “It was for the jury to decide whether it was foreseeable that the particular placement of an unsecured item –here a rangefinder –could lead to its falling to the operator’s feet where it could cause problems with the operation of the cart’s foot pedals….
[T]he particular placement of the rangefinder could be viewed as simply another alleged act of negligence on the part of the cart’s users or possessors. In addition, it was for the jury to determine whether Robinson’s inexperience with golf carts was a proximate cause of the cart’s collision with plaintiff.”

Though it was not necessary to the Appellate Division’s decision, Judge Fisher also addressed the Law Division’s view that the cart rental contract was one of adhesion. Citing Rudbart v. North Jersey Dist. Water Supply Comm’n, 127 N.J. 344 (1992), he observed that the cart was not offered on a “take it or leave it” basis, and a golf cart is not “a common and necessary adjunct of daily life.” Besides, determining that a contract is one of adhesion only began the proper inquiry. There was no claim that the agreement, adhesive or not, was unenforceable.