BY: Andrew Colton
DELRAY BEACH, FL (BocaNewsNow.com) — The critical crash in G.L. Homes’ Seven Bridges involving four children on a golf cart highlights challenges for Florida law enforcement and homeowner associations when it comes to regulating kids driving golf carts, and convincing their parents that it’s a recipe for disaster.
A police report obtained by BocaNewsNow.com but not yet generally public details the August 9th crash. It states the four children — who we are not naming — were riding a 2014 EZ Go “Freedom” Golf Cart on the community’s main street when the unlicensed 15-year-old girl driving the cart darted in front of an oncoming car.
The car, driven by Sunny Isles resident Eduard Hiutin, slammed into the golf cart. Police say Hiutin was not responsible for the crash. There was no reasonable expectation that a golf cart, loaded with kids, would cut in front of him.
Hiutin did not return a call seeking comment.
The golf cart driver and passengers, ages 11, 13, 14 and 15 were all ejected onto the street. They were transported by ambulance to the trauma unit at Delray Medical Center where one was treated for a catastrophic injury. The 15-year-old driver and two of the children live in the community, one in Parkland.
Investigators cited the teenage girl driving the cart for “operating a motor vehicle in a careless or negligent manner” as well as “failure to yield right of way.” Attorneys say the girl’s mother, who owns the golf cart, would likely be a litigation target if the injured file suit.
Florida Attorney Jason Melton is a former Federal prosecutor who specializes in golf cart crashes and personal injury cases.
“I don’t think a child driving a golf cart is a good idea,” he said. “Every 14-year-old or 15-year-old is different, but that’s a risk that you’re taking. I don’t think any parent should let an (unlicensed) teen drive a golf cart. Just from a responsibility perspective, an adult should be in the cart.”
Melton’s firm has offices near The Villages — one of the largest golf cart communities in the United States — as well as in Boca Raton. He says parents and owners need to understand that they are ultimately liable for what happens on their golf cart.
“I couldn’t sue a child. I would have to sue the parents (if a child is at fault),” he said, discussing non-specific golf cart crashes. “And If you go after the owner of the cart for being vicariously liable, then you’re still suing the parents.”
Tim Babiarz, also a Florida attorney with golf cart crash expertise, says a lawsuit from an injury involving a golf cart crash can be devastating.
“The golf cart owner can be ruined financially. If a child, for instance, suffers a traumatic brain injury, his lifecare plan could be (more than) two million dollars. If the golf cart isn’t licensed and insured with its own policy, the owner is going to get pounded.”
While the unlicensed teenager is at fault for the Seven Bridges crash, the fact that she had no license isn’t an issue — at least criminally. It’s a Florida legal ambiguity that often puts law enforcement — and HOAs — in a tough spot.
Florida law says it’s okay for a golf cart driver to be as young as 14, so long as it’s in a private community that’s registered with the Florida Department of Transportation as a “Golf Cart” community. However, even if the community is just gated, police are unlikely to file charges against a golf cart driver for being unlicensed.
Speaking generically about golf cart crashes in the City of Boca Raton, police spokesman Mark Economou says Florida gated communities set their own rules.
“As for whether the golf cart driver was unlicensed or not, that wouldn’t be part of (a normal crash) investigation because it was on private property, unless there were other circumstances such as the teen was drinking. (Generally,) it’s up to the HOA to fine (an underage driver) for operating on their property if they had an age restriction rule.”
Tim Babianz, the golf cart crash attorney, believes the laws need to change.
“If you knew a kid had to be 16 and licensed to drive a golf cart, you would take away the temptation to throw the key to a 14 year old. It makes no sense.”
Like many gated communities in the area, Seven Bridges is a private community but not registered for golf carts. However, HOA documents filed with the clerk of courts reveal that the Seven Bridges HOA requires a golf cart driver to be at least 16 years old and carry a valid driver’s license. The community does not require the cart to display a license plate or carry insurance.
Policies differ in private, family-oriented communities throughout the region, including Boca Falls in West Boca.
“Our property has been advised that Palm Beach County requires anyone that drives a golf cart to be a licensed driver,” said longtime HOA President Marjorie Licht. “We, of course, have to adhere to County rules. In addition, our HOA also considers a golf cart a motor vehicle and require that it be registered with our property management. When the golf carts are registered, we inform the owners of Palm Beach County rules. We believe it’s important that cart owners understand that these vehicles are for real drivers – not young kids.”
Licht says she is unaware of any significant golf cart incidents in the community which is nearly 30 years old.
“When our security sees kids drive, they stop them, ask for ID and escort them home.”
In the City of Boca Raton, the police department recently posted to an online forum when residents complained about kids driving golf carts on city streets.
“There are currently no roadways in the City of Boca Raton that are designated for golf cart use,” wrote the department, according to Spokesman Economou. “Those observed operating a golf cart on a roadway will receive a citation. If a juvenile is observed operating a golf cart on a roadway, besides the citation, a parent or responsible adult must respond and take custody of the cart.”
A G.L. Homes spokesman said G.L.’s principals can’t discuss the Seven Bridges crash or the responsibility of its private security force in enforcing golf cart rules in the company’s many “under construction” communities throughout the area.
Attorneys suggest that G.L.may face litigation itself as a result of the crash. Public records confirm that a G.L. Homes Vice President serves as president of the Seven Bridges HOA which makes the community’s rules and controls their enforcement.
While some legal observers argue that it is unreasonable to hold an HOA or builder liable for bad decisions made by homeowners, attorney Melton says insurance companies and lawyers representing the injured in any golf cart crash will investigate every aspect of what happened.
“There could be historical context behind the event.” said Melton, speaking about non-specific golf cart crashes. “Maybe the association has warned the individual multiple times before. Maybe the association has been warned before. Maybe the association itself bares responsibility because (the board) didn’t do anything about it.”
But Melton also echoed comments made by law enforcement, builder representatives and HOA leaders throughout the area contacted for this story.
Simply put: It’s not just about the law. It’s about common sense.
“I actually don’t think it’s a complicated problem, “ said Melton. “Most golf carts require a key to start. unfortunately people always leave their key in a golf cart. People don’t leave keys in a car. They’re both motorized vehicles and can cause harm. They should be treated the same way.”