Dan Jessup and John Stempniak were playing a friendly game of golf on the Sun City Vistoso course in Tucson five years ago. Things went awry on the way to the 13th tee.

Between holes 12 and 13, the golfers had to drive across a public road. Stempniak, who was driving the pair's golf cart, apparently ran the stop sign posted at the road. The golf cart collided with a landscaping company's pickup truck.

Jessup's knee was the biggest casualty of the accident. "He pretty seriously fractured his patella," says Stephen Weiss, Jessup's attorney.

Ever since, Jessup has been trying to get somebody to compensate him for his injuries. Now his case is on the verge of setting a potentially expensive precedent for golf courses in Arizona.

In late April, the state Court of Appeals in Tucson upheld a Superior Court judge's ruling that golf courses can be held liable for accidents that occur when the carts they rent out are driven across public roads.

The appeals court essentially ruled that rented golf carts--if they are driven on or across public roads--are no different than rental cars, and that they must be registered and must carry liability insurance.

The court ruled that the Sun City Vistoso golf course and Del E. Webb Cactus Development, Inc., builders of the planned community in which the course is located, are jointly and severally liable for the injuries Jessup suffered.

(Jessup had already been awarded $196,653.75 in a default judgment against Stempniak, but Jessup has not received any money, attorney Weiss says. The new ruling means that Cactus Development, Inc., and Sun City Vistoso may have to pay Jessup the money, with interest.)

Attorneys for the builder are asking the state Supreme Court to review the decision, so it is not yet law. But if the ruling stands, attorneys say, many golf-course owners will have to acquire license plates and insurance policies for all of their carts.

"They're going to be liable, so they're going to have to get coverage of some kind," Weiss says.

Kathy Wilkes, executive director of the Professional Golfers Association's Phoenix office, cannot even begin to estimate how many golf courses, or carts, might be affected by the ruling.

"There's quite a few, but I have no idea how many," Wilkes says. Some large courses, she says, have 100 or more carts in their fleets.

Although no one is sure if it will happen, it appears that golf courses can expect to pay at least a couple of hundred dollars per cart if the appeals court's ruling stands.

Individuals who drive their private golf carts on public streets--who are already required to register and insure them--pay between $90 and $125 per year for liability insurance, according to the state Department of Insurance.

Registering a cart with the state Motor Vehicle Division costs $4 for each $100 of the cart's factory list price. With new carts listed at around $3,000 and up, each registration could easily cost more than $100.

Robert Cronin, a Phoenix attorney who represented the developer's insurance company in the Jessup case, says the court's ruling could spawn a host of headaches for golf-course operators, above and beyond its obvious added costs.

When drivers rent cars, he points out, they have to produce driver's licenses and obtain signatures from everyone who might drive the car. Will golf-cart users now have to do the same thing?

"What about drinking on the course?" he asks. "You have potential dram-shop problems if you allow people to drink and rent a vehicle."
Complying with the court's ruling probably would not disrupt play at any courses, Cronin and Wilkes say, and the costs would probably be passed along to the players.

But the expense and trouble of complying, they say, may be disproportionate to the actual risk that players face.

"I play my share of golf, and I have never known of a golf-cart accident that has caused any kind of injury," Cronin says. "I've known of people who have been killed on golf courses. The common way is standing behind a tree and smacking a three wood off the tree and having [the ball] hit you right between the eyes. That'll kill you as dead as a doornail.

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David Pasztor