DOING NOTHING MAY BE A VERY GOOD OPTION
Yesterday, we considered whether my friend Kirk Piper was on a slippery slope in letting the sledding public have the run of Logan’s Hill, a peculiarly good winter coasting venue which happened to come with the property on which he lived. Being a guy who is comfortable wearing both a belt and suspenders, Kirk had a deal with the City whereby if he permitted recreational use of the hill next to his house, City liability insurance would cover such use of the hill. But, he wondered, what would happen if liability exceeded the insurance limits, or the City dropped coverage, or the Finance Director forgot to mail the premium, or some other calamity led to his being in the defendant’s dock as a result of what happened to the sledders using the hill?
Between cups of mulled wine at Kirk’s excellent Christmas party earlier this week, I told Kirk about the wonders of Ohio’s recreational use statute. Sledding seemed to me to be the type of recreational activity that should be covered by § 1533.181 of the Ohio Revised Code. Naturally, my interest was piqued, and unsurprisingly, I found that the question had already been asked and answered in court.
But, as I noted yesterday, there is an important limiting factor. Land used for recreational use often is undisturbed, full of groundhog holes, dead trees, unmarked bogs, crocodile dens and the like. In fact, the undisturbed nature of the land is often what makes it attractive for recreational use to begin with. For that reason, the recreational use statute exempts guys like Kirk from liability for the condition of the land on which the public may take its recreation.
Logan Hill, for example, has a water hazard, a creek which is easily reached by the faster sleds. Many is the kid who has had to bail out just before his or her sled topples over the bank into the thin ice and cold water. If Logan Hill were an amusement park attraction, with the creek being a feature rather than a bug, you can be sure that liability for damaged sleds and injured kids resulting from crashing into the creek would attach to the park operator. But because it is a natural feature of Logan’s Hill, users are the captains of their own ship.
But what if Kirk, in a well-intentioned effort to improve Logan’s Hill for the public, decided to bulldoze a few moguls or reroute the creek through some concrete culverts? And halfway through the work on a winter’s day. he parks his bulldozer at the bottom of the hill in order to go inside for a cup of that mulled wine? And while he’s gone, little Johnny and Judy race down the hill on a toboggan and collide with the dozer’s blade?
Or say Kirk used the dozer to dig a 10-feet deep pit just before the creek, in order to stop sleds before reaching the water, and Johnny and Judy run their toboggan into the hole?
In a case like that, the liability issue is murkier. When it comes to the hill, doing nothing to alter or repair its natural conditions – even if the alteration makes perfect sense – might not just be an option, it might be a better option.
Combs v. Ohio Dep’t of Natural Resources (2016), 146 Ohio St. 3d 271. Richard Combs was celebrating his birthday at Indian Lake State Park, which is open to the public without an admission charge. He spent the night fishing and early the next morning walked to Pew Island, where the fishing is better. As Rich walked across the causeway to Pew Island, Jerry Leeth, an ODNR employee, was using a boom mower to cut weeds and brush along the lakeshore. One of the mower blades threw a rock that struck Rich in the eye and face and caused serious injuries.
Rich sued ODNR in the Court of Claims, alleging that Jerry negligently operated the boom mower and caused his injury. The Court of Claims granted ODNR’s motion for summary judgment, holding that because Rich was a recreational user, ODNR had no duty to keep the park safe for his entry or use, and his negligence claim was thus barred as a matter of law.
The court of appeals reversed the decision, holding that although the recreational user statute abolished a property owner’s duty to keep its premises safe for use by recreational users, it provides immunity only for injuries caused by the defective condition of the premises. The appellate court held that because Rich claimed that he was hurt by an ODNR worker’s negligence and not by a defect in the premises, the recreational user statute did not apply.
Richard appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court.
Held: ODNR was not entitled to immunity under the recreational user statute ORC § 1533.181, because the Rich’s injuries did not arise from a defective condition of the premises, but rather from negligent mowing by a ODNR employee, and, as such, ORC § 1533.181 did not apply.
The Court noted that ORC § 1533.181, the recreational user statute, provides that no landowner owes any duty to a recreational user to keep the premises safe for entry or use or extends any assurance in that regard. Under the statute, a landowner is not liable to a recreational user for injuries caused by the defective condition of a recreational premises.
At common law, a landowner owed a duty to those who enter the premises depending on whether the person was an invitee, licensee, or trespasser. A landowner owed an invitee – someone the landowner had invited onto the property – the duty to exercise ordinary care to render the premises reasonably safe. The landowner owed no duty, however, to a trespasser or licensee upon the land except to refrain from wanton, willful or reckless misconduct which is likely to injure him.
The common law also recognizes that a landowner, being aware of the presence of a licensee, or even a trespasser, is required to use ordinary care to avoid injury to him arising from the active negligence of such owner or his servants. The duty to exercise such reasonable care arises after the landowner knows or should know that a licensee or trespasser is on the land.
The recreational user statute amends the common law rule. Instead of common law distinctions based on the status of the person on the land, the duty owed depends solely on whether the person using the property qualifies as a recreational user. The statute limits landowner liability for injuries to recreational users in three ways: (1) no landowner owes any duty to a recreational user to keep the premises safe for entry or use; (2) granting permission to enter the property is not an assurance that the premises are safe; and (3) a landowner is not liable for injuries caused by the act of a recreational user.
But the statute has its limits. The Court observed that the legislature could have excused a landowner from any duty whatsoever to any recreational user, “but tellingly, it did not do so.” Instead, the statute does not abrogate a landowner’s common law duty to exercise reasonable care to avoid negligently injuring those on the premises, and – in the absence of language clearly showing the intention to supersede the common law – the existing common law continues in full force.
Accordingly, the Court ruled, the recreational user statute does not limit a landowner’s liability for a negligently inflicted injury that does not arise from the condition of the premises. In this case, Rich’s injuries did not arise from a defective condition of the premises but rather from Jerry’s alleged negligent operation of the mower. ORC § 1533.181 simply does not apply in these circumstances.
– Tom Root