Golfers with Disabilities Reach Settlement over Accessible Golf Carts at Half Moon Bay Golf Links

San Francisco, CA – January 29, 2008 – Golfers with disabilities have scored a major victory in a lawsuit against Marriott International, Inc. In a disability civil rights case with far reaching implications, a federal court in San Francisco has ruled that Marriott is obligated under federal law to make accessible golf carts available for the use of disabled golfers. Even though hundreds of golf courses around the country have informally recognized that disabled golfers are entitled to this accommodation in order to access their courses, Marriott had said it had no obligation to the thousands of disabled and senior golfers who cannot play without an accessible golf cart.

In granting summary judgment to the disabled plaintiffs and in denying summary judgment to Marriott, federal Judge Phyllis J. Hamilton wrote: “The Court declares that Marriott violated the ADA, and for those courses which Marriott owns and operates in California, the California Disabled Persons Act, and the Unruh Act as well, by failing to provide accessible golf carts as a reasonable accommodation for plaintiffs’ mobility impairments.“

The suit was brought by Disability Rights Advocates, a nonprofit legal center in Berkeley, California, that specializes in suits on behalf of persons with disabilities, and Chavez & Gertler, a leading class action legal center in Mill Valley, California.

Accessible golf carts, also known as single-rider carts, are used by individuals with mobility impairments. The carts are operated with hand controls and have seats that swivel to get the golfer into a hitting position. The carts are designed to avoid injury to the course and can be driven up onto tees and greens. More than 400 golf courses currently provide the carts, ranging from championship courses such as Pebble Beach to inexpensive municipal courses. The carts are only marginally more expensive than regular carts and the disabled plaintiffs had asked that Marriott provide one or two accessible carts for each course that it operates or owns.

“Unfortunately, Marriott was hostile to those who need these carts and thumbed its nose at the Americans with Disabilities Act,” said Kevin Knestrick, attorney at Disability Rights Advocates. “Marriott is in the hospitality industry, but apparently its hospitality doesn’t extend to disabled people, senior citizens and veterans.”

Nance Becker, co-counsel for the plaintiffs, commented: “We made every effort to settle this case, but Marriott forced us to sue them. They were foolish. They actually have an excellent business opportunity to welcome the growing number of people who want to play golf. Instead of spending the small amount of money needed to accommodate golfers with mobility impairments, Marriott chose to spend its money on a lengthy legal battle, which the company was destined to lose. We hope today’s decision will make Marriott resorts more welcoming for their potential customers, and encourage other golf resorts to do the same.”

While this is the first court ruling addressing access to golf courses in the private sector, the federal government has recently acknowledged that it must make its recreational activities, such as golf, available to disabled veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. This past September, the Department of Defense announced its plans to acquire two accessible golf carts for each of the 174 courses operated on U.S. military bases. The Department of Interior has similarly opined that the ADA requires that accessible carts be provided at municipal golf courses. The Department of Justice has taken the same position.

Richard Thesing, one of the plaintiffs and Director of Mobility Golf, a nonprofit established to increase golfing opportunities for those who cannot walk, commented:

“It is 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 on its courses. The money spent to purchase an accessible cart could be quickly recovered through green fees or a few disabled guests’ hotel expenses while staying at a destination course.”

Marriott currently operates 26 golf courses throughout the United States through its business division Marriott Golf, the world’s largest golf resort management organization.

“This suit is not only about providing an accommodation that allows a person to play a game, it is also about providing access to the unique social, economic and professional opportunities that golf provides,” explains Sid Wolinsky, Director of Litigation at Disability Rights Advocates. “Everybody knows that business deals are formed and nurtured on the golf course. People with disabilities should have an equal chance to initiate these types of professional relationships.”

Millions of Americans play golf, and interest in the game among women and minorities continues to grow. There are more than 25 million Americans who are mobility impaired. Mr. Thesing says he just wants to give people with disabilities an equal opportunity to take up the game he loves.

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Case Page

Celano v. Marriott