In 1965 Pennsylvania passed a law protecting landowners from lawsuits who make land and water areas available to the public for recreational uses. The Act was narrow and has accomplished its purpose by encouraging recreational use of properties that might not otherwise have been available to the public.
The Pennsylvania legislature, through some of its less enlightened members, is now involved in an effort to expand that Bill far beyond any necessary purpose. The proposal is to exempt from responsibility an owner of land regardless of where the damaged person or property is located. It is so broad that it encourages the most reckless sort of behavior.
Supposing, for example, the landowner permits someone to launch fireworks from his land. Somebody off the land may be seriously injured or have their home burned down and they would be granted immunity.
Granting immunity to a landowner who invites hunters on his land, without charge, is to encourage use of privately owned land for hunting. What is the purpose of granting landowner immunity for any recreational activity which takes place on his land regardless of who or what is hurt off the land?
The amendments are so broad that they would protect people from lawsuits “wherever located.” “Land” is also broadly defined not only encompassing unimproved features, but also would extend to bridges, launching ramps, and any area provided to users including parking areas. The law was never intended to give a “get out of jail free card” to anyone, under any circumstances and in any location.
The law would also broaden the immunity to improved or unimproved areas regardless of whether located in a rural or urban area. This law would therefore protect wrongdoers in the crowded urban environment.
The law also would extend hurdles to legitimate claims in connection with snowmobiling, all-terrain use and motorcycling riding, all of which can be very dangerous activities.
The only purpose of this law can be to protect people who are neglectful and cause harm to others. A court would be empowered, under the amendment to the law, to award attorney’s fees and direct costs to any owner, lessee, manager or holder of an easement or occupant of real property who is found not to be liable. However, attorney’s fees are not awarded to victims where there is liability for neglect, regardless of how willful or intentional.
This proposed expansion of the law is unfair, unbalanced, and will encourage bad behavior. It will protect people who own land and water resources who engage in the most dangerous sort of activities. There is no reason for this legislation, except to line the pockets of those who least need that protection. The proposed changes to the Recreational Use of Land and Water Act will encourage reckless and dangerous behavior without any corresponding good to be done for the public.
Rieders, Travis, Dohrmann, Mowrey, Humphrey & Waters
161 West Third Street
Williamsport, PA 17701
(570) 323-8711 (telephone)
(570) 323-4192 (facsimile)
Cliff Rieders, who practices law in Williamsport, is Past President of the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association and a member of the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority. None of the opinions expressed necessarily represent the views of these organizations.