Anyone who has a pulse and at least a few functioning brain cells knows it is against the law in Indiana (and every other state) to drive a car or truck while drunk. Most of us are familiar with the consequences, too: a suspended or revoked license, hefty fines, increases in insurance rates and maybe even jail time—to say nothing of the risk of killing an innocent person. But our cars aren’t the only vehicles we use in our everyday lives. One of our most common means of traversing from Point A to Point B—or rather, Hole 1 to Hole 18—is the golf cart. You may go to jail for driving a car with a blood-alcohol level of .08 or above, but what about driving a golf cart? Further, does being drunk on a golf cart have an effect on your potential civil liability if you hit someone while on it? With summer upon us, now is a great time to dive into those questions.
It should quickly be noted that Indiana does not have criminal charge of DUI, instead it is classified in the criminal code as an OVWI. Interestingly, these statutes criminalizing the operation of a motor vehicle while under the influence (OVWI) do not actually specify that the vehicle in question must be a car or truck, nor that the vehicle has to be driven on a public road. The statutes state:
“A person who operates a vehicle with an alcohol concentration equivalent to at least eight-hundredths (0.08) gram of alcohol but less than fifteen-hundredths (0.15) gram of alcohol per:(1) one hundred (100) milliliters of the person’s blood; or (2) two hundred ten (210) liters of the person’s breath; commits a Class C misdemeanor”1
Additionally, the definition of vehicle is quite broad where OVWIs are concerned — it includes any “a device for transportation by land or air.”2 While no appellate court in Indiana has been asked to consider whether driving a golf cart while under the influence of alcohol is a crime, Indiana courts have held that even a farmer’s tractor qualifies. So if you’re driving a golf cart on the road the answer is yes, you can be charged with a DUI.
What if you are only driving the cart on a golf course—and a private golf course at that? Unfortunately for the would-be intoxicated golfer, whether you are actually driving the cart on a public street (versus private land like a golf course) is irrelevant. Indiana law criminalizes the action regardless of where it takes place3, as evidenced by a man being charged with a DUI while driving his ATV on his own private property.4 The bottom line: if you drink and drive a golf cart, you’re almost certainly breaking the law.
Now we now know that drinking and driving a golf cart can lead to criminal punishment. What is less clear, however, is what that could lead to in terms of civil liability. Golf cart accidents are on the rise in the United States. Between 1990 and 2006, an average of more than 9,000 people were non-fatally injured in golf-cart-related accidents every year. That’s an average of more than 25 per day. Some estimates put the annual number at more than 13,000.
It is legal common sense that if someone negligently operate a golf cart and, as a result, injures another person, the driver will likely be liable for their injuries. That is after all the basis of nearly every car accident case out there and as we’ve discussed golf carts are treated mostly the same. However, the victim will have to prove the elements of negligence: that the driver owed the victim a duty to act reasonably, that the driver’s conduct—in this case, the driving of the cart—fell below that standard, and that the driver’s conduct was the cause of the victim’s injuries. It may seem simple enough, but those first two pieces provide fertile ground for the driver to defend against the victim’s lawsuit. That entire formula may change, however, if the driver was intoxicated.
Because the laws against drunk driving are in place to protect innocent people, breaking that law likely constitutes “negligence per se.” That means the victim no longer needs to prove that the driver owed the victim a duty to act reasonably or that the driver’s conduct fell below that standard. Instead, the victim need only prove the statute against drunk driving is a statute designed to protect people from a certain kind of harm, the victim is one of the people the statute aims to protect, and the harm suffered by the victim is the kind of harm the statute aims to prevent. Particularly in a case of a drunk driver injuring another driver or pedestrian, that is a very easy standard to meet. As a result, if you injure someone while driving a golf cart drunk, in many cases it is significantly more likely that you will be held liable for that person’s injuries. But the civil effects of the decision to drive drunk do not stop there.
In a small handful of personal injury cases, the plaintiff can pursue punitive damages in addition to damages for their medical bills, pain and suffering, etc. Punitive damages are unrelated to the plaintiff’s injuries, and they exist simply to punish a defendant who did something especially bad. In Indiana, a plaintiff seeking punitive damages must show that the defendant engaged in “willful and wanton misconduct.” Indiana courts have held that driving drunk itself likely does not automatically constitute “willful and wanton misconduct”, but driving drunk and also driving poorly—a common combination—likely would.5
Please, have fun this summer and stay safe. The golf course is a great place to get away from everything, hang out with friends, smoke a nice cigar, and maybe even have a beer or two. Just keep it under control, drink responsibly, and have a DD so that your day of fun at the golf course doesn’t turn into a nightmare.
1 Indiana Code § 9-30-5: Operating a Vehicle While Intoxicated
2 Indiana Code § 9-13-2-196(d): Vehicle (Definition)
3 Indiana Code § 9-30-5-9: Operation of vehicle in place other than public highway
4 Indiana v. Manuwal, 904 N.E.2d 657 (Ind. 2009)
5 Wholwend v. Edwards, 796 N.E.2d 781 (Ind. Ct. App. 2003)