|By Chuck Carroll, San Jose Mercury News, Calif.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Oct. 5, 2005 -- Two men are suing Marriott International, alleging the company discriminates against disabled people by refusing to provide specially equipped golf carts at the Ritz-Carlton resort links outside Half Moon Bay and its other courses.
The plaintiffs -- including one from Atherton -- filed a lawsuit Tuesday in San Francisco federal court charging Marriott with violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and state civil rights laws.
"The reason we're focusing on Marriott is it's a huge player in the golf industry," said Mark A. Chavez, a Mill Valley attorney representing plaintiffs Richard Thesing and Laurence Celano. "We're hoping that this lawsuit will prompt it to lead the way in opening up access to individuals with mobility disabilities."
Marriott spokesman Tom Marder said the company had just received a copy of the lawsuit, and he declined to comment on it. But he said as a matter of policy and practice, Marriott strives to comply with all laws, including those that deal with public accommodations.
Marriott owns, operates or contracts with about 80 courses in the United States. Also named in the lawsuit was Ocean Colony Partners, which manages the Half Moon Bay Golf Links for Marriott.
Thesing, an Atherton resident who suffered a spinal cord injury in a diving accident at age 18 and must use a wheelchair, said he wrote to Marriott and Ocean Colony several times to inquire about accessible carts, but they refused to provide them.
Attorneys for the two men also point out the ADA specifically lists golf courses as a "public accommodation" that must provide "full and equal access." Disability Rights Advocates of Oakland is also representing the two men.
Chavez said hand-controlled golf carts that rotate and tilt the seat to allow mobility-impaired golfers to swing at the ball while seated are now more affordable, costing from $6,000 to $8,000. Golf courses can recoup the cost through rental fees, he said.
The two men are also suing on behalf of other golfers with mobility problems, saying that access to golf courses is important in the business world because they are a place where relationships are nurtured and deals get done.
Celano, who lives in Arizona, has a spinal cord injury from gunshot wounds received in the U.S. military action in Panama. Unable to walk, he took up golf after his recovery so that he could socialize with his friends.
Thesing, a former board member of the National Alliance for Accessible Golf, said if only 10 percent of the estimated 7 million Americans who cannot walk took up golf, there would be a sizable market of disabled golfers. But until they know they can get access, there's no reason to learn, he said.
Celano and Thesing's case is reminiscent of that of former Stanford University golfer Casey Martin, who turned pro and successfully sued the PGA Tour under the ADA for the right to use a golf cart to get around in PGA tournaments.
Martin has a degenerative circulatory disorder that makes it very painful for him to walk. He uses a regular golf cart to travel from shot to shot.
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