Hayes v. City of Plummer – Recreational Use Statute in Premises Liability

All property owners owe a duty of care to people who are on that property lawfully. The exact nature of that duty often depends on the status of the lawful guests (i.e., an invitee, licensee or trespasser), the type of property, where it’s located and what it’s used for.
Property that is open to the general public is usually held to a high standard in terms of ensuring it is reasonably safe and free of foreseeable hazards.

However, there is a provision that exists in North Carolina law – as it also does in many other states – that lessens the duty of care owed by the landowner if the property is privately-owned, yet is open for public access for free recreational use. The law in North Carolina is referred to as the “Landowner Limited Liability Law.” It’s also sometimes referred to as the “Recreational Use Statute.” The purpose is to encourage owners and managers to allow public access for creation use on their lands.

Codified in N.C.G.S. 38A, the statute defends both public and private land managers.

The recreational use statute is one of the many obstacles that sometimes must be overcome in cases where a public entity is named as a defendant in an injury lawsuit.

In the recent case of Hayes v. City of Plummer, the Idaho Supreme Court ruled plaintiff failed to overcome this hurdle. The key issue in the case was whether the defendant city received compensation or charge for the recreational use of the land upon which plaintiff was injured.

That may seem like a fairly straightforward issue, but plaintiff attorneys raised a number of points to counter the defense position.

According to court records, plaintiff was attending his grandson’s youth football game at a local school park. The park was owned by the city, but managed and maintained by the school. Plaintiff was seriously injured after he stumbled on uneven ground that was hidden by grass.

He later filed a premises liability lawsuit against the city. The city argued protection under the state’s recreational use statute. District court granted this motion, and he appealed.

Key to the case was that ownership of the park had been transferred to the city decades earlier for the sole purpose of obtaining federal grants, which weren’t available to the school district. Still, the school district continued to pay for all water, electric, maintenance and significant improvements on the property. The school also controls scheduling for organized events, and the property is available to the public at no charge.

District court granted defense motion because the city didn’t receive any charge or compensation for use of that land. On appeal, plaintiff argued the city did receive compensation in the form of the school’s payment of utilities, property insurance, maintenance and improvements.

However, the state supreme court rejected this argument. It noted neither plaintiff nor the youth football league or anyone associated with it paid a fee to use the parking lot, field or other facilities. The city did not charge anything for the public to use the land, and it was open and freely accessible to the general public. Therefore, the recreational use statute provided immunity from liability for plaintiff’s injuries.

Contact our Carolina personal injury lawyers at Lee Law Offices today by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Hayes v. City of Plummer, Sept. 30, 2015, Idaho Supreme Court
More Blog Entries:
Concert Injury Lawsuit Seeks Damages for Harm in Mosh Pit, Sept. 27, 2015, Asheville Injury Attorney Blog

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