Hike, bike, fall, crash, file suit " not
Every once in a while the California Legislature gets it right. In 1963 California adopted a Recreational Use Statute that makes private land owners immune from liability for injuries suffered by people who enter their land free of charge for recreational purposes.
Also in 1963, the Legislature adopted a similar law protecting public land owners from lawsuits filed by citizens using public roads and trails for recreational purposes.
Both laws were enacted in response to closures of large parcels of public and private land to encourage land owners to allow use of their property for recreational activities.
Anni Amberger-Warren was walking her dog Diogi in the off-leash section of Linda Park in Piedmont. Amberger-Warren was on a paved pathway cutting across a small hill when she slipped on some debris, injuring her hand on an exposed cement edge. She sued the City of Piedmont for a dangerous condition of public property. The City defended, claiming it was immune on the basis of the Trail Immunity Statute, Government Code Section 831.4.
Section 831.4 provides that public entities are not responsible for injuries caused by a condition of any unpaved road or trail or paved sidewalk path or trail which provides access to fishing, hunting, camping, hiking, riding (animal and vehicular), water sports, recreational or scenic areas. The law also protects private property owners who deed public easements to municipalities for those same recreational purposes.
(Advice: Don’t simply allow use of a trail on your property, deed an easement to a public entity or qualified land trust for the trail.)
Amberger-Warren made all sorts of fancy legal arguments trying to distinguish “trails,” “sidewalks,” “paths,” and “walkways” to no avail.
She then remarkably claimed that Piedmont was liable for creating a dog off-leash area in the park even though she admitted she had brought her dogs to the area nearly every day for at least eight years without mishap.
Amberger-Warren finally argued that because she fell on some debris on the paved trail the city was liable because it didn’t properly maintain the trail. She also contended that the location and design of the trail was the cause of her injury.
The Court of Appeal found that the public trail immunity covers claims from recreational users arising from a paved or unpaved trail’s design, location, construction and lack of maintenance.
Ultimately concluding, I believe appropriately, “While we would like to live in a world of resources sufficient to guarantee reasonable safety at all times, users of recreational trails or bike paths generally understand the risk of injury inherent in the use of such pedestrian ways, and recognize that a large portion of the activities comprising modern public park and recreation programs … might well be curtailed, deferred or even completely eliminated if the risk of tort liability (lawsuits) were to impose unduly large obligations upon the public treasury.”
As noted above, private property owners who allow use of their property by recreational users additionally have the Recreational Use Statute to protect them from lawsuits.