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Law Review: Property owners protected from suits filed by recreational users of their land

Jim Porter

California’s Recreational Use Statute, section 846 of the Civil Code, is one of my favorites. It’s a favorite because it often applies to our area where outdoorsy types use private property for lots of reasons, including fishing, hunting, skiing, hiking and biking. Any chance I get I throw in a plug for the Recreational Use Statute.

MOTOCROSS TRACK ACCIDENT

One day in 2014, 18-year-old Gunner Young invited Mikayla Hoffmann to go motorcycle riding in his parents’ backyard on a motocross track he and his dad built. 



Long story short, their bikes collided, both were injured and Gunner and his parents were sued by Mikayla. There was no evidence that Gunner’s parents knew that Mikayla was coming over to their house, nor were they home at the time. They did own the property.

Do Gunner and his parents have legal exposure to Mikayla for her injuries?



RECREATIONAL USE STATUTE

Let’s get right to it: landowner liability law in California, here goes.

The general rule in California is that a landowner owes a duty to exercise ordinary care in managing their property in light of the foreseeability of injuries to others. Legalese for property owners may be liable if they are negligent.

More than half a century ago, in an effort to protect landowners from lawsuits brought by members of the public using their property, the California Legislature adopted Civil Code 846 which eliminates an owner’s duty to keep his/her property safe for use by others for “recreational purposes.” So, if someone is injured while using your land for a recreational purpose, you are generally not liable. Per the code recreational purpose includes the following: fishing, hunting, camping, water sports, hiking, spelunking, sport parachuting, riding, including animal riding, snowmobiling, and all other types of vehicular riding, rock collecting, sightseeing, picnicking, nature study, nature contacting, recreational gardening, gleaning, hang gliding, private noncommercial aviation activities, winter sports, and viewing or enjoying historical, archaeological, scenic, natural, or scientific sites. 

There are very few exceptions to section 846. One is that if the owner expressly invites someone onto their property and the person is injured while using the land for a recreational purpose, the owner could be found legally liable.

The question in the case of Hoffman v. Young is whether Gunner’s inviting Mikayla onto his parents’ property for motocross racing is protected by section 846. If Gunner’s parents had invited Mikayla, then the protections of section 846 would not apply. The question was whether Gunner’s inviting Mikayla onto his parents property for a recreational use exposed them to liability. i.e., was Gunner the agent of his parents or the equivalent of his parents or on the other hand was he not the “owner” of the property as specified in section 846(d)(3)?

COURT RULING FAVORS RECREATIONAL USE IMMUNITY

The California Supreme Court in this San Luis Obispo County case came down in favor of protecting owners from lawsuits filed by recreational users on their private land, in this case, Gunner’s parents. The code recites that the immunity protecting the landowner does not apply if the owner invites the user onto their property. In this case the owners were Gunner’s parents, not Gunner. 

While this certainly imposes a hardship on Mikayla and her family, I like the ruling because it interprets section 846 to protect the landowner from recreational user lawsuits and construes the code exactly as it is written when it recites “owner.”

Jim Porter is an attorney in the process of retiring from Porter Simon licensed in California and Nevada. Porter Simon has offices in Truckee and Tahoe City, California, and Reno. These are Jim’s personal opinions. Jim’s practice areas included:  real estate, development, construction, business, HOA’s, contracts, personal injury, accidents, mediation and other transactional matters. He may be reached at jameslporterjr@gmail.com


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