Spectator sports are a year-round form of entertainment here in Florida, whether it’s minor league baseball or hockey tournaments or auto racing. Many parents and students also enjoy attending school sporting events, and for the most part, these events are fun for everyone.
But when a facility fails to protect the safety of its patrons, serious injury can occur. In these instances, it may be appropriate to explore the possibility of a premises liability lawsuit. The relative success of such litigation will depend on a host of factors, not the least of which is whether the facility was privately or publicly owned, and whether it was offered free of charge for recreational purposes.
It may seem a strange consideration, but F.S. 375.251 specifically shields property owners from all but the most egregious forms of negligence when they have made their property available to the public free of charge for recreational purposes. The idea is to encourage landowners to open their property for public use, such as picnicking, hiking, nature study, water skiing, sporting events, motorcycling, pleasure driving, boating, fishing or camping.
But the downside is if there is an injury, plaintiffs have to show deliberate, willful or maliciousness on the part of the property owner in order to secure damages. This is a high bar, as any Port St. Lucie injury lawyer will tell you.
We saw an illustration of this recently in the Rhode Island Supreme Court case of Carlson v. Town of South Kingstown. Similar to Florida, Rhode Island has a Recreational Use Statute that limits liability claims against entities that make their property available for public recreational use free of charge.
According to court records, plaintiff attended her son’s little league baseball game, which was part of a scheduled event at a park owned and maintained by the local town. It was a championship game, open to the public and no tickets or admission charge was required. The league had a permit to host the game, but the town never charged the league to use the park.
On the day in question, shortly after the game had ended, plaintiff walked over to the concession stand to meet her son. As she did, she walked passed an area near the dugout. It was there she tripped on a “divot” in the dirt, which was later discovered to have been made by players digging their cleats into the ground while they waited for their turn at bat.
Town officials reportedly knew this was an issue, though they had never before had any reported injuries as a result and workers hadn’t noticed the divots a day earlier when they inspected the park.
As a result of that fall, plaintiff twisted her ankle and suffered a leg fracture.
She sued both the town and the league. Both claims were dismissed on summary judgment, rulings she appealed separately. Although the appeal against the league is still pending, the Rhode Island Supreme Court affirmed the grant of summary judgment in favor of the town on the basis of the state’s Recreational Use Statute, which is largely similar to the law in Florida.
Because the Recreational Use Statute was applicable, plaintiff was held to a higher burden of proof. She had to show property owner (i.e., the town) acted willfully or maliciously in failing to guard the public against a dangerous condition on the land. She did not meet that burden, unfortunately.
Had this been an injury that occurred separate from the game and the league’s use of the land, she might have had a stronger case.
Anytime a government entity is involved in an injury case, special rules may apply, which is why it’s important for only an experienced attorney to be trusted with the case.
Call Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights.
Carlson v. Town of South Kingstown, April 8, 2015, Rhode Island Supreme Court
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