Archive for the ‘Government Property’ Category

The Art of Recreation – University Not Permitted to Assert Recreational Use Statute Protection Against Spectator Claim (TX)

April 21, 2015

University of Texas at Arlington v. Sandra Williams (Texas)

The plaintiff and her husband attended their daughter’s soccer game played at the football stadium at the University of Texas at Arlington.  She leaned against a gate that separated the stands from the playing field, and the gate unexpectedly opened, causing her to fall five feel to the artificial turf below.  Plaintiff injured a rib and her left arm and sued the University for premises liability, alleging negligence and gross negligence.  As part of its responsive pleadings, the University filed a motion to dismiss claiming (among other things) liability protection under the Texas recreational use statute.

Texas’ recreational use statute (like many similar statutes in other jurisdictions) protects landowners who open property for recreational purposes, limiting their liability to the recreational user.  In such cases, the burden of proof is elevated, requiring either gross negligence or an intent to injure.  Ultimately, the Texas Supreme Court affirmed the decision of both the trial court and the court of appeals and determined that a spectator at a competitive sports event is not “recreation” under the statute such that the liability protection did not apply.

Go Team!

November 15, 2012

Kristina D. v. Nesaquake Middle School (New York)
(A cheerleader was injured when she fell from a shoulder stand during practice; she sued the district, coach and others for her personal injuries; the trial court denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment based on assumption of the risk, but the decision was reversed on appeal.)

The minor plaintiff was an experienced middle school cheerleader who was injured performing a “shoulder stand” during practice, a stunt she had performed many times in the past.  She filed a claim alleging that the school district and the coach acted negligently by, among other things, “failing to supervise the cheerleaders properly in performing the stunt.”  The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that the claims were barred by assumption of the risk.  The motion was denied, and the defendants appealed.

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Root of the Problem

August 3, 2012

Connelly v. City of Omaha (Nebraska)
(Children were injured while sledding at a public park when they struck a tree, and their parents filed an action agains the city for negligence; liability was imposed against the city for failing to remedy an unreasonable risk of harm.)

The Nebraska Supreme Court determined that the City of Omaha should have realized that the trees in the area of the park used by the public for sledding posed an unreasonable risk of danger.  Moreover, the Court explained that the city should have expected that lawful visitors to that area of the park for sledding would fail to protect themselves against the danger posed by trees in the area.  Key facts in the litigation revolved around the city’s efforts to restore and renovate the subject park where the incident occurred about 10 year prior to the incident.  The city held public hearing opportunities, and issues relating to “sledding opportunities” were discussed in detail.  City officials also specifically debated issues regarding the placement of trees and how such placement could affect the sledding activities.  Several years later, many trees were planted at the park in an area previously identified as the location for sledding.  There was also an indication of prior similar incidents in the area.

The verdict from a bench trial was affirmed, and the children and parents were awarded damages.  The damages of all parties were subject to damage caps pursuant to Nebraska’s statutory scheme limiting the liability exposure of political subdivisions.

NOTE: Cases like this are a reason that government entities are hesitant to fully embrace recreational activities on public lands.  It ia also a lesson to government entities to carefully select their words while making a public record on issues relating to potentially dangerous conditions on public lands.  Unfortunately, the impact of cases like this extends far beyond these parties and the City of Omaha.

Attack on Connecticut’s Public Lands

May 12, 2011

Recreation on Public Land Jeopardized (Connecticut)
(Recent developments in Connecticut case-law appear to reverse past trends and open up public lands to liability for injuries incurred in connection with recreational use by members of the public.)

The Overlawyered blog recently posted an article discussing developments which are opening up public lands to potential liability where protections were once found.  This trend could potentially stifle recreational opportunities for state citizens.

Risks of Tackle Football Under Review

September 17, 2010

Betts v. New Castle Youth Development Center (Pennsylvania)
(17-year-old suffers spinal cord injury while playing “pick-up” football at a government youth development center; the center and its employees are found immune under the Eleventh Amendment to the Constitution.)

The 17-year-old plaintiff severely injured himself while attempting to make a tackle in a “pick up” tackle football game without any pads, helmets, or other safety gear. He thereafter sued the New Castle Youth Development Center (a facility that houses youths that have been adjudicated delinquent and committed to the state’s care) and several members of its staff, alleging that his rights were violated under the Eighth Amendment (prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment”) and Fourteenth Amendment (deprivation of substantive due process) of the United States Constitution. The evidence indicated that immediately after the incident, an employee of the facility asked the plaintiff to tell authorities that he was playing touch football at the time of the injury rather than tackle football. The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment contending that they were immune from liability under the Eleventh Amendment and the United States District Court agreed, finding that the facility was an administrative agency “without existence apart from the Commonwealth.” As for the claims against the individual employees, the District Court ruled that there was insufficient evidence to show a “substantial risk of serious harm” and “deliberate indifference to that risk.” The court stated that the challenged behavior of allowing the youths to play tackle football without equipment “did not shock the conscience.” The plaintiff appealed and the Court of Appeal affirmed the District Court’s decision.

NOTE: In ruling against the plaintiff on the Eighth Amendment claim, the court included the following notable quotable: “Life is fraught with risk of serious harm and the sports world is no exception.” The discussion by the Court of Appeal in terms of the risk evaluation of tackle football is quite interesting. Citing past incidents of publicized spinal cord injuries, the plaintiff asserted that the risk of serious harm inherent in playing tackle football without equipment was “obvious.” However, the Court of Appeal stated that the plaintiff’s evidence shed “no light on the frequency or likelihood of such injuries” and did not mean that there was a “substantial risk.” The Court concluded that there was no “evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude that serious injury is a common or likely occurrence in tackle football games.” The Court also referred to the fact that there had been no prior reported injuries as a result of tackle football games at the facility, supporting the conclusion that there could be no deliberate indifference to a serious risk on the part of the facility or its employees.

No Free License to Mow Down Bikers

August 28, 2010

Klein v. U.S. (California)
(California Supreme Court rules that the liability shield of California’s recreational use statute did not extend to acts of vehicular negligence.)

The plaintiff was riding a bicycle for recreation on a two-lane paved road in Angeles National Forest in Southern California when he was struck head-on by an automobile driven by a part-time volunteer working for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. The court ruled that California Civil Code Section 846, which provides that a landowner “owes no duty of care to keep the premises safe for entry or use by others for any recreational purpose” did not extend to acts of vehicular negligence. The Court based its decisions on the plain language of the statute noting that the statutory phrase “keep the premises safe” related to property-based duties underlying premises liability, not including vehicular negligence.

NOTE: The Court’s conclusion was logical based upon the clearly defined duties related to premises liability.

High School Daredevil

July 5, 2007

Benally v. Tacoma School District No. 10 (Washington)
(High School Student Leaning Over Railing Falls From Elevation; Triable Issue Regarding Condition of Premises Created Triable Issue of Material Fact and Trumped Application of Assumption of the Risk)

The plaintiff high school student and his friends congregated on a second story breezeway at Lincoln High School in Tacoma, Washington. His friends had previously warned plaintiff not to sit on the railing that protected students from falling approximately 20 feet to the ground below. Nonetheless, plaintiff sat on the railing during a lunch period, leaning backwards into space. As his friends had predicted, plaintiff lost his balance and fell to the concrete floor below, sustaining multiple serious injuries.

Plaintiff’s fall was linked to a square stone cap that sat on top of a pillar next to the stairs leading to the ground floor, which was described as a “heavy stone top.” In their depositions, two of his friends recounted that as plaintiff was leaning back, holding onto the stone cap with one hand and the railing with the other, the stone cap shifted as plaintiff fell. The school district filed a motion for summary judgment, which was granted by the court based upon primary implied assumption of the risk, and the plaintiff appealed.

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A Challenging Course

June 28, 2007

Roman v. City of Bristol (Connecticut)
(Employee Injured While Using Rented Recreational Challenge Course Owned and Operated by the City; Employee Sued City and City Sued Employer Citing Indemnity Provisions in Rental Agreement; Court Found Issues of Fact Regarding Whether the Employer and the City Were Both Sophisticated Business Entities with Equal Bargaining Power Such That the Indemnity Provisions Should Be Enforced)

An employer signed a rental agreement with the city that included the rental fee and the date and time for use of a recreational challenge course owned by and located in the city.  An employee of the employer was injured while using the course and she brought a personal injury action against both the city and the city’s course instructor who was present at the time of the incident.  The city then filed a third party lawsuit against the employer for breach of contract and indemnification.  The city alleged that the employer breached the rental agreement by (1) not holding them harmless, (2) not providing them with a legal defense, and (3) failing to secure and maintain an adequate and proper liability insurance policy.  The employer filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that it was not obligated to indemnify the city under the contract for the city’s own alleged negligent conduct.  The trial court granted the employer’s motion, and the city appealed. 

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