Under a recreational land use statute, an owner of a land who makes all or any part of the land available to the public without charge, rent, fee or other commercial service for recreational purposes owes no duty of care to keep the land. In order to be protected under a recreational use statute, a person must qualify as an ‘owner’ under the statute.
An owner, lessee, or occupant of premises owes no duty of care to keep such premises safe for entry or use by others for recreational purpose[i]. Most recreational use statutes broadly define owner to include the legal owner of the land. Owner means “the possessor of a fee interest, a tenant, lessee, occupant or person in control of the premises”[ii]. Some statutes also consider the holder of an easement an owner. An occupant is a person who, in his/her own name, has the right to control the premises, i.e., to make land and water areas available to the public for recreational purposes[iii].
In general, recreational statutes provides owners of any interest in land, possessory or nonpossessory, with immunity from tort liability for injuries sustained in the recreational use of that land[iv].
However, the statute does not limit liability to persons who are expressly invited rather than merely permitted to enter a property. The express invitation exception requires a direct, personal request from the landowner to the invitee to enter the property. An invitation need not be for the specific purpose of engaging in recreation[v].
Additionally, it is to be decided whether a public entity or municipality qualifies as an owner under a state’s recreational use statute. Some statutes specifically include public entities in the definition of owner. Some states specifically exclude the state from the definition. In states that include public entities as owners under their recreational use statute, public land falls within the protection of the statute. The Following are some examples.
“The U.S. is an owner within the definition and the entire statute is applicable to the United States of America”[vi].
However, a state recreational use statute does not apply to a county’s immunity from liability[vii].
Municipalities are not owners within the meaning of the recreational use statute. Thus, the town and its employees cannot claim immunity under it[viii].
In Conway v. Town of Wilton, 238 Conn. 653, 680 (Conn. 1996), the plaintiff, sued the town of Wilton, the parks and recreation director, and the Connecticut Association of Secondary Schools for injuries she sustained while playing in a state high school tennis tournament sponsored by the association on the Wilton High School tennis courts, which are owned by the town. No fees were charged for the use of the courts. She alleged that while competing in the tournament, she fell as a result of a defect in the courts and seriously injured her knee and ankle. Additionally, she alleged that the cause of her injuries was the negligence of the director and his staff in maintaining the courts, and the negligence of the association in failing to inspect the courts to ensure that the town repaired any unsafe conditions and in failing to supervise the tournament. The defendants asked the trial court to dismiss the case claiming immunity under the recreational use law. The trial court noted that a municipality clearly comes within the definition of owner and rejected the arguments of the town that the court should construe the statute in such a way as to exclude municipalities. However, the Supreme Court held that municipalities will not come under the definition of owner.
However, a property owner is liable for injuries to employees engaged in recreational activities, when they are acting within the scope of their duty.
[i] La. R.S. 9:2791.
[ii] Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-557f.
[iii] Reed v. Employers Mut. Cas. Co., 741 So. 2d 1285, 1289 (La.App. 2 Cir. Sept. 22, 1999).
[iv] Hubbard v. Brown, 50 Cal. 3d 189, 193 (Cal. 1990).
[v] Johnson v. Unocal Corp., 21 Cal. App. 4th 310, 317 (Cal. App. 2d Dist. 1993).
[vi] Page v. Louisville, 722 S.W.2d 60, 61 (Ky. Ct. App. 1986).
[vii] Metro. Dade County v. Yelvington, 392 So. 2d 911, 912 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 3d Dist. 1980).
[viii] Conway v. Town of Wilton, 238 Conn. 653, 680 (Conn. 1996).