As Washingtonians, we love to get outside and recreate. And that recreation often occurs on a patchwork of land owned by public agencies, private landowners, land trusts and others.
Washington, like many states, has enacted a “recreational immunity statute,” to encourage landowners to open their lands for recreation by limiting their liability if someone gets hurt on their land.
Washington’s recreational immunity law encourages private and public landowners to open up their lands to the public for recreational use free of charge, by quelling landowner’s fears of being sued in the event of an accident on their land. The effect is that landowners are more likely to open their land up for public access if they are protected from liability.
Land trusts both own and manage lands that are open to the public for recreation, and work with private landowners to protect their lands and sometimes open them up for public recreation. WALT’s member land trusts also often work with public agencies to secure and facilitate recreational access on public lands.
Lockner vs Pierce County
Washington’s recreational immunity law was recently challenged when a cyclist was injured on public land. In Lockner v. Pierce County, a Court of Appeal’s decision held that Washington’s recreational immunity statute was limited to land opened to the public solely for recreational purposes.
This was a reversal of a lower court decision to apply the recreational use immunity statute and to grant a summary judgment in favor of the county, dismissing the cyclists suit over her injuries.
WALT and others feared that this interpretation would undermine the recreational immunity statute’s original purpose entirely. First, the holding undermined protections for properties that are open for recreation AND other purposes, like transportation, education, scientific study, the practice of Native American religious and cultural traditions, or any number of the wide range of multiple uses we find on lands across Washington.
And second, the court of appeals placed inordinate weight on a landowner’s authority to open or close their property, which would put landowners who document public access through an easement, deed restriction, or other legal agreement at risk.
A victory in the courts
Pierce County asked the Supreme Court to review the Lockner decision, and the Court accepted review.
Early this year, WALT joined a number of partner groups, including representatives of other landowners and recreational user groups, to submit a Friend of the Court brief outlining our concerns and urging a reversal of the court of appeals’ decision.
We are very pleased to report that in a unanimous decision, the Washington Supreme Court in Lockner v. Pierce County reversed the Court of Appeals ruling. The decision affirmed that Washington’s recreational use immunity law covers any lands opened for free public use, regardless of whether the land is used solely for recreation or if it has been opened for other uses.
We’d like to offer a huge thank you to Pacifica Law Group for representing us and preparing our amicus brief. Protecting Washington’s recreational immunity statute is critical for land trusts, and for anyone who enjoys getting outside and recreating.