Marriott Must Provide Golf Carts for Disabled

San Francisco Chronicle – Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer

The world’s largest golf resort management company has discriminated against disabled golfers and must provide carts that let them hit the ball without stepping on the course, a federal judge in San Francisco ruled Monday.

Marriott International, which owns or operates 26 courses nationwide including Half Moon Bay Golf Links, violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by denying mobility-impaired golfers the same access as their able-bodied counterparts, said U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton.

Lawyers for three disabled golfers said it is the first ruling in the nation that requires private golf clubs to offer accessible carts, which are controlled by hand and have seats that swivel. A disabled player can use them to navigate an entire course, including putting greens and sand traps, without leaving the vehicle or damaging the course, said attorney Sid Wolinsky of Disability Rights Advocates in Berkeley.

In September, the Defense Department said it would provide similar golf carts at all U.S. military bases. The Justice Department negotiated a settlement in 2002 that required the city of Indianapolis to use the carts at its public courses.

In a statement through his lawyers, plaintiff Richard Thesing of Atherton said it was “particularly short-sighted for a corporation such as Marriott, with billions in annual revenue, to refuse to spend such a minimal amount to allow people with disabilities to enjoy a round of golf.”

Thesing, who uses a wheelchair because of injuries from a traffic accident, heads an organization called Mobility Golf.

Marriott did not respond to a request for comment.

One ruling Hamilton cited was the 2001 Supreme Court decision allowing professional golfer Casey Martin, who suffers from a degenerative leg disorder, to use a golf cart in tournaments. The court found that the PGA was violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, rejecting the association argument that walking is an essential part of the sport.

Marriott argued that it was providing access to disabled golfers by allowing them to use their own specialized carts, and by a pilot project of providing the carts on four company-owned courses, a project that started after the suit was filed in 2006. The company also contended the carts posed safety hazards and said courts should await Justice Department regulations, which have been in the works since 2004.

But Hamilton said the plaintiffs wouldn’t be able to load their own carts onto a trailer, couldn’t take advantage of the pilot project at most Marriott courses, and wouldn’t have equal access, or any access, under the company’s current policy. She also said there was no evidence that the accessible carts had caused any injuries in 20 years of use and noted that the Justice Department regulations may be years away.

“Marriott’s current policy does not provide plaintiffs, mobility-impaired golfers, with an experience that is functionally equivalent to that of other nondisabled golfers,” the judge said. “Nondisabled golfers can simply show up at the course, and Marriott will provide them with a functional cart as part of the cost of their round of golf.