Washington encourages landowners to open their property up to recreational use by the public by providing immunity to the landowners. The statute provides that a landowner who does not charge any kind of fee to the public is not liable for “unintentional injuries” to members of the public using the property for recreational purposes. RCW 4.24.210. It is clear that injuries on land open exclusively for recreational purposes may fall under the statute and that injuries on land open exclusively for other purposes do not. It is less clear, however, whether immunity can apply when the injury occurs on land that is open to the public for mixed use.
A Washington appeals court addressed this issue in a recent case. The plaintiff was injured while riding her bicycle on a trail. She approached a lawn mower, operated by an employee of the county, and attempted to pass it. She raised her hand to shield her eyes from the debris from the lawn mower. In her deposition, she testified that she tried to veer to the left to get off the trail and clipped the bicycle being ridden by her niece. The plaintiff fell and was injured.
The county’s website described the trail as “a popular commuter route and recreational destination for bicyclists….” Likewise, the county’s Regional Trails Plan provided that the regional trails system would be used “for recreation and transportation….”
The plaintiff sued the county and the employee who operated the lawn mower. The trial court granted the county’s motion for summary judgment, finding that the county was immunized from liability by the recreational immunity statute, RCW 4.24.210. The plaintiff appealed.
On appeal, the plaintiff argued that there were issues of material fact as to the trail’s use for transportation purposes.
The appeals court noted that the purpose of the statute was to encourage landowners to open their property to the public for outdoor recreation. Immunity only applies if the landowner can show that the three elements of the statute are met. The land must be open to members of the public for recreational use without the imposition of any kind of fee.
The plaintiff based her argument on Camicia v. Howard S. Wright Constr. Co., which held that the recreational immunity statute does not apply when the land is held open for mixed use. In that case, the plaintiff sued the city after she was injured while riding her bicycle on the I-90 bicycle trail. The city argued that the trail was used for recreational purposes, but there were also records showing the trail was funded as a transportation facility rather than a recreational facility. In that case, the Washington Supreme Court identified two considerations in determining if the land was open for recreational purposes. The first question is whether the landowner could close the land to the public. The second question is whether the land was open to the public only for the purpose of recreation. The Court found the city was not entitled to immunity because a trier of fact could have found that the trail was open for transportation purposes instead of recreational purposes.
In the current case, the trail in question was open to the public, and there was no fee. Thus, the appeals court had to consider the two questions from Camicia. The appeals court found there was an open question of fact as to who owned the trail, and therefore there was a question as to whether the county had the authority to close it. The appeals court also found an issue of fact as to the purpose for which the trail was open to the public. The county website referred to the trail as a commuter route. The Regional Trail Plan indicated that trails were for both recreation and transportation. Finding these open issues of fact, the appeals court concluded that summary judgment had been improper.
The plaintiff also argued that summary judgment was improper because the recreational immunity statute applies only to premises liability claims, rather than negligence claims. The appeals court disagreed, finding that the plain language of the statute extended to negligence claims.
The appeals court reversed and remanded the case for further proceedings. The appeals court did not accept the county’s argument that the recreational immunity statute applied when the county itself had promoted the trails for commuter and transportation purposes. The evidence was sufficient to raise the question of the purpose for which the property was open to the public, and the parties will have to address that issue on remand.
The Seattle personal injury attorneys at Blair and Kim, PLLC, have a thorough understanding of recreational immunity. If you have been injured on someone else’s property, call us at (206) 622-6562 or contact us online. We can help you fight for the compensation you deserve.
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