With the arrival of spring, I start to head outdoors a bit more and find myself (along with many folks in Whatcom County) recreating in a public park or trail. As you risk life and limb to chase down your dog that has wondered off trail, be careful as if you do injure yourself you may find yourself without legal recourse from the landowner. Washington provides immunity from liability for unintentional injuries to landowners, public or private, who allow members of the public to use the land for purposes of outdoor recreation without charging a fee of any kind for the use. This law, RCW 4.24.210, is often referred to as the recreational immunity statute. It essentially modifies the duty owed to public invitees by allowing landowners to invite the public for the purpose of recreation. The landowner must only warn the public of known dangerous artificial latent conditions.
Recently, the Washington Supreme Court analyzed in Camica v. Howard Wright Construction and City of Mercer Island, whether the landowner of the formally entirely owned Washington State Department of Transportation’s I-90 trail would be immune from liability under the above law. WSDOT’s position was that the trail was mainly for transportation and not recreation. A portion of the I-90 trail was conveyed to the City of Mercer Island which is where a bicycle injury occurred paralyzing the rider. The City’s position was that it understood that the trail was to be primarily recreational despite WSDOT’s characterization. The Supreme Court found that recreational immunity does not follow from the mere presence of incidental recreational use of land that is open to the public when there are multiple public uses of the land available.
I find this case interesting both from the user’s perspective and also from the perspective of representing municipal landowners and private individuals who open their land to the public. Landowners should strive to understand whether their land would be considered open to the public for recreational purposes so they are aware of the extent of exposure to claims from users. Once landowners understand that exposure, they can take steps to reduce the likelihood of claims. At the same time, recreationalists should beware of the risks associated with their recreational use of land that is open to the public because if injured it’s possible that the user may not be able to make a claim against the landowner.
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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