DOING YOUR DUTY
Robert E. Lee, a man torn between duty to country and to his home state, once said “Duty is the most sublime word in our language. Do your duty in all things. You cannot do more. You should never wish to do less.”
Judges must remind themselves of that often, as they are called upon to apply laws they believe are ill-conceived in cases where the outcome seems less than just to them. The Rhode Island Supreme Court faced that unpleasant task a decade ago, being required to send an injured citizen home empty-handed after an accident at a state facility. The Rhode Island statute in question, the State’s Recreational Use Statute, gives unusually broad immunity to governmental units, classifying the people who use parks and other facilities as little more than trespassers.
Agree or not with the Court’s discomfiture at treating a user of a state recreational facility as a trespasser, one must nevertheless admire the Court’s careful application of the law, coupled with its repeated solicitation of the legislature to correct what a majority of the state’s high court sees as short-sighted policy. Clearly, the judges didn’t like what the law compelled them to do… but they saw the only remedy for that as laying with the legislature.
Labedz v. State, 919 A.2d 415 (Sup.Ct. R.I. 2007). Antonina Labedz was walking along a concrete path at Scarborough Beach, a state-owned beach located in Narragansett, Rhode Island. She tripped on an uneven surface and fell to the ground, breaking her wrist. She sued, alleging the State was negligent in “permitting a dangerous uneven condition to exist on a portion of walkway and failing to warn invitees … of the dangerous condition on the premises.” The trial court found that the State was shielded from liability by virtue of the Recreational Use Statute. Labedz appealed.
Held: The State was not liable. Labedz argued that the Supreme Court should reverse prior cases which gave the State broad exemption from liability. But the Court rejected her position, noting that it had been unequivocal in its view that the unambiguous language of the 1996 amendment to the Recreational Use Statute clearly reflects the General Assembly’s intent to extend to the state and municipalities the limitations on liability afforded by that statute, most recently in Lacey v. Reitsma. The Court took the opportunity again to note its “concern about the troubling result that we felt obliged to reach by virtue of our reading of the Recreational Use Statute, and we urged the General Assembly to revisit the provisions of that statute concerning state and municipal immunity.” The Court felt uncomfortable with a statute that classified users of state and municipal recreational sites “as though they were trespassers.”
Labedz also argued that the trial court was wrong to grant summary judgment where the State could have been found liable if its conduct had been willful or malicious. She had alleged as much in her complaint, but she advanced no evidence to support her claim. But Labedz argued that it was the jury’s duty to find whether the conduct had been willful or malicious, and the trial court shouldn’t have taken away that duty by granting summary judgment without a trial. The Court ruled that if the facts were not genuinely disputed, as in this case, the law is pretty settled that a trial court may proceed to determine the existence of any legal duty without assistance from the jury.
Here, Labedz couldn’t point to any evidence that suggested the State acted willfully or maliciously, as those terms are used in the Recreational Use Statute. Summary judgment for the State was appropriate, albeit not cheerfully granted.
– Tom Root