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Case Law Update: Recreational Use Immunity Act Clarified

Posted Wednesday, May 16, 2018 by Christopher L. Thayer

In Lockner v. Pierce County (No. 94643-4, April 19, 2018), the Washington Supreme Court recently revisited Washington’s Recreational Use Immunity Act and clarified its application. RCW 4.24.210 provides protection for owners of recreational property, specifically:

"Any public or private landowners, hydroelectric project owners, or others in lawful possession and control of any lands . . . who allow members of the public to use them for the purposes of outdoor recreation . . . without charging a fee of any kind therefor, shall not be liable for unintentional injuries to such users."

In Lockner, Ms. Lockner and her niece went for a bicycle ride on the Foothills Trail in Pierce County. While Lockner rode behind her niece, both cyclists approached a riding lawn mower cutting grass and moving in the same direction beside the trail. As Lockner passed the lawn mower, it allegedly expelled a cloud of dust and debris. Lockner shielded her face and swerved clipping her niece's bike. Lockner fell and severely injured her knee and elbow. The Foothills Trail is a nonmotorized asphalt trail alongside a soft shoulder path for equestrian use. Pierce County’s website for the trail describes it as a "popular commuter route and recreational destination for bicyclists." In its regional plan, the County envisions that its trail system will become a network for recreation, provide "transportation routes," and connect the County to other regional destinations.

Lockner filed suit seeking recovery for injuries against the County alleging negligence. The trial court dismissed her lawsuit, based on the recreational immunity statute (RCW 4.24.210). On appeal, the question was whether or not, for the recreational immunity statute to apply, did the trail have to be used “solely” for recreational purposes? Lockner argued because the trail was open for uses other than recreation (i.e., commuting), the statutory immunity did not apply.

The Supreme Court noted to qualify for immunity under RCW 4.24.210, the landowner must establish the land at issue was (1) open to members of the public (2) for recreational purposes and (3) no fee was charged. The Court held the language of the statute is clear and unambiguous. The provision mentions only outdoor recreation and it does not say that land must be open for "only" recreational purposes.

The Supreme Court held:

"We did not construe RCW 4.24.210 as requiring exclusive recreational use to confer immunity; indeed, as explained above, the plain language of the statute does not support such a reading. In light of this plain language, immunity is not extinguished when land is used for other public or private activities in addition to recreation."

RCW 4.24.210 was enacted to encourage landowners (including cities, counties and the state) to open up their property for recreational use, without having to be concerned about potential liability in the event someone were injured. In a region where outdoor activities from cycling, to hiking, climbing and kayaking, play such a huge role, this statute makes it easier for such landowners to open the land up to the public. The Lockner decision makes it clear the Washington Supreme Court intends to construe this statute broadly. This could have broad implications for those who commute by bicycle, to the extent their commute is on trails, which are also used for recreation. Absent the statutory immunity, a governmental agency would be liable if the pathway were unsafe or dangerous as designed or maintained.

If you have questions about the recreational use immunity statute and its application, please contact managing member, Chris Thayer at (206) 805-1494 or CThayer@PivotalLawGroup.com.