Liability for Injuries on Recreational Land Open to the Public

March 7th, 2019 - Bryan L. Page

In Washington, and especially Whatcom County and Bellingham, we enjoy the outdoors and all the areas available for us to use and explore. Whether it is hiking in the Chuckanut Mountains or mountain biking on Galbraith Mountain, we are blessed with an abundance of places for outdoor recreation activities.

But what if you get hurt on these types of properties? Can you file a lawsuit against the property owner for your injuries, whether the owner is a public government entity or a private landowner? Not likely, according to Washington’s recreational use immunity statute.

RCW 4.24.210 states that “any public or private landowners . . . who allow members of the public to use them for the purposes of outdoor recreation . . . without charging a fee of any kind thereof, shall not be liable for unintentional injuries to such users.”

The types of “outdoor recreation” to which immunity applies includes but is not limited to gathering firewood, hunting, fishing, camping, picnicking, swimming, hiking, bicycling, skateboarding, hang gliding, parachuting, paragliding, rock climbing, riding horses or other animals, clam digging, pleasure driving of off-road vehicles, boating, kayaking, canoeing, rafting, nature study, winter or water sports, and viewing or enjoying historical, archaeological, scenic, or scientific sites. Basically, any type of outdoor activity you can think of.

The land does not have to be used solely or exclusively for recreational purposes in order for the landowner to be entitled to immunity. The landowner can be using the land for other purposes as well. So long as the land is also open to recreational use by the public without charging a fee, immunity is granted. So for example, immunity still applies even though the owners of Galbraith Mountain may conduct logging operations on portions of it.

Importantly, immunity only applies to “unintentional” injuries. It does not apply to intentional injuries. It also does not apply to injuries that result from a known dangerous artificial latent condition for which warning signs have not been conspicuously posted (think something like a hidden manmade booby-trap).

The stated purpose of the recreational immunity law is to encourage landowners to make their lands available to the public for recreational purposes by limiting their liability. If landowners could potentially be liable to anyone who went onto their property to recreate, property owners would not open up their lands for us to enjoy. That would include even publicly owned parks and open space. The statute is a tradeoff, landowners open their land for us to use and we cannot sue them.

But the lesson learned is that you use open lands at your own risk. If you accidently get hurt, you cannot seek compensation from the landowner. So be careful out on the trails and in our parks.

Disclaimer: This article and blog are intended to inform the reader of general legal principles applicable to the subject area. They are not intended to provide legal advice regarding specific problems or circumstances. Readers should consult with competent counsel with regard to specific situations.

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