Lockner v. Pierce County

Supreme Court of Washington, No. 94643-4, April 19, 2018: Washington’s recreational use immunity not limited to sole use.

This decision clarifies that the scope of Washington’s recreational use immunity statute, RCW 4.24.210, does not require that the property in question is open to the public for “solely” recreational use, and that when the statute applies to a property it immunizes landowners from negligence actions as well as “premises liability.”

Washington’s recreational immunity statute reads in part:

“[e]xcept as otherwise provided . . . any public or private landowners, hydroelectric project owners, or others in lawful possession and control of any lands whether designated resource, rural, or urban, or water areas or channels and lands adjacent to such areas or channels, 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.” RCW 4.24.210 (emphasis added).

Lockner was injured when she fell from her bicycle on a trail maintained by Pierce County (County). Lockner claimed her injury resulted from actions of a county employee or contractor and she sued the County for negligence. The trial court found that the statute bars her claim because the injury happened on land open to the public for recreational use without a fee, and dismissed Lockner’s claim on summary judgment. Lockner appealed and the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that a prior Washington Supreme Court decision, Camicia v. Howard S. Wright Constr. Co., 179 Wn.2d 684, 687, 317 P.3d 987 (2014), created the precedent that the statute only applies to properties open to the public for “solely” recreational use, and summary judgment shouldn’t be granted when a question of fact remained as to whether the trail was solely for recreational use.

The court said that the appeals court misread Camicia: the statute clearly and unambiguously mentions only outdoor recreation and does not say that land must be open for “only” recreational purposes. Thus, the court was able to find that the land met the test to qualify for immunity under RCW 4.24.210; the was (1) open to members of the public (2) for recreational purposes and that (3) no fee was charged.

The Court of Appeals had also held that the statute immunizes landowners from negligence actions. Lockner appealed this part of their decision, arguing that recreational immunity applies only to premises liability actions.  The court rejected Lockner’s appeal, saying, “the plain language of RCW 4.24.210 does not support this narrow reading. … To hold otherwise would undermine the legislative purpose of recreational use immunity as it would do little to limit a landowner’s liability for the ‘acts or omissions’ of public users. RCW 4.24.200.”

Decision available at http://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/pdf/946434.pdf.

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