In general, property owners and managers are bound by law to ensure lawful guests – particularly consumers and members of the public – are reasonably safe from foreseeable harms on that property.
However, there is one major exception, and it’s important to understand when it might apply. It’s called the “Recreational Use Statute,” and every state has one. In Florida, it’s codified in F.S. 375.251. The intention is to compel large land owners to allow public use of their property for recreational purposes by significantly reducing any potential liability he or she might face for injury by those guests.
Florida’s recreational use statute states that no land owner or lessee who provides the public with a park area or land for outdoor recreation cannot be presumed to extend any assurance that the area, land or water is safe for any purpose. The term “outdoor recreational purposes” can include (but isn’t limited to) activities that include things like swimming, boating, hiking, picnicking, motorcycling, pleasure driving, hunting and more.
Essentially, if the event or purpose of one’s presence at a location involves a recreational activity for which there was no fee involved and that was open to the public, that individual may have a difficult time recovering damages for injuries sustained as a result of a dangerous condition on that property.
This was recently the case for plaintiff in Woody v. Pembina County Annual Fair & Exhibition Association, weighed by the North Dakota Supreme Court.
According to court records, plaintiff attended a fireworks display at the fair, held by a non-profit, tax-exempt company that offered the show to the public free of charge. Plaintiff did not pay any money to enter the fairgrounds or for any activity she engaged in thereon.
While she was searching for a seat to watch the fireworks, plaintiff stepped on a rotten board in the grandstand. She fell to the ground and sustained serious personal injuries as a result.
Plaintiff later sued the non-profit, alleging they had been negligent in maintaining the grandstand.
Although the defendant did not deny the allegations, it nonetheless moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing it was protected by the North Dakota’s recreational use statute, which granted it immunity.
The district court granted defense request. Plaintiff appealed, but the state supreme court affirmed.
As in Florida, certain landowners whoa re protected from liability under recreational use statutes have no duty of care to keep the property safe for others for recreational purposes. Neither do they owe a duty to give warning of any dangerous condition, use, structure or activity on site to persons entering for recreational purposes.
The statute doesn’t apply to landowners who are engaged in any for-profit business ventures by inviting members of the public onto their land for commercial gain. So for example, if the non-profit/ landowner had charged an admission fee, their argument would have been significantly diminished.
However, the statute in North Dakota expressly excludes charges for things like vehicle parking or other similar fees. Plaintiff argued she was indirectly “charged” because vendors on the site paid the land owner a flat-fee to operate there.
But state supreme court justices rejected this argument because case law has defined “commercial purpose” as one that results from a direct activity for which there is a charge for goods and services. The court did not accept plaintiff’s argument that a fair vendor indirectly paid her admission when she did not personally pay anything to enter. The court found this did not adhere to the plain, ordinary meaning of the statutory words.
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Woody v. Pembina County Annual Fair & Exhibition Association, March 2016, North Dakota Supreme Court
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Carlson v. Town of South Kingston – Ball Field Injury Lawsuit Weighed, Feb. 22, 2016, Fort Lauderdale Premises Liability Lawyer Blog