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Public Access Guide for Water Trails and River Managers

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Welcome! This has been developed to be a helpful resource for landowners and land managers who are considering the option of providing access to and use of their property for recreation. This is not a legal document, but it may help readers learn fundamental concepts and where to look for advice regarding the provision of public access for recreation.

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Public Access Guide for Water Trails and River Managers

  1. 1. Public Access Guide for Landowners, Water Trails & River Managers Photo: River Management Society
  2. 2. Welcome! Thank you for taking an interest in this important topic. This has been developed to be a helpful resource for landowners and land managers who are considering the option of providing access to and use of their property for recreation. Private landowners, who have considerably different liability considerations than do state and local agencies, are addressed first, followed by a section on public landowners. This is not a legal document, but rather a resource to help answer basic questions concerning liability, recreational use statutes, and other concepts that need to be considered. A glossary is provided at the end of the document to define legal terms and concepts. First mentions of technical terms will contain links to the glossary. Photo: Interagency Wild and Scenic Coordinating Council
  3. 3. Recreational use statutes are state-specific laws developed to encourage private landowners to open their land for public use without fear of being sued. While every landowner must understand their responsibilities and that no one is immune from a liability claim, these statutes provide landowners with important basic legal protection. There are three main issues involved with legal protection and landowner liability. and should be addressed separately: 1. Fees 2.Attractive Nuisances 3.Dangerous Conditions Landowners should always consult their state’s recreational use statute, local organizations, and/or their personal legal counsel for updated and additional guidance Click HERE to check your state’s Recreational Use Statute Private Landowners
  4. 4. N o Fees Case Study: Tubing Rental in Arizona A participant of a commercial tubing/shuttling operation on a river in Arizona sued the recreation provider for negligence. The article explains what factors must be taken into consideration with such tort claims between individuals and outfitters on publicly accessed waterways. Is the landowner charging fees or accepting donations for recreation-related purposes? A landowner is generally immune from liability. Remember to consider if attractive nuisances and dangerous conditions exist. Photo: NPS/RTCA
  5. 5. Yes In most states, a landowner is not immune from liability. Exceptions: • Fees are allowed in 24 states if land is leased to a public agency • Alabama: fees are allowed if land use is not commercial • Texas: fees are allowed if they are less than 2x property taxes • Nebraska: fees may be charged, but only for groups • North Carolina: fees are allowed if for non-trail recreational use • Massachusetts: donations are allowed • South Dakota: non-monetary gifts up to $100 are allowed • Virginia: fees are allowed if to maintain the land • Wisconsin: fees are allowed if revenues are less than $2,000 per year Is the landowner charging fees or accepting donations for recreation-related purposes?Fees
  6. 6. Attractive Nuisances Natural bodies of water are not considered attractive nuisances. Landowners have no responsibility to make these“safe” when they are not designated for swimming. 3. Will children be unable to protect themselves from danger? 4. Will it be easy to remove the hazard without hardship, given the nature of the potential harm? 2. Is it likely that children will access the property? 1. Do you know of the presence of hazardous objects on the property that will attract children? • Railroads • Swimming Pools • Construction Sites • Power lines or towers • Man-made ponds and fountains • Discarded appliances • Abandoned cars • Farm equipment • Wells or holes in the ground • See Online Checklist No to all The landowner is more likely to be immune from liability. Remember to check fees and dangerous conditions. Photo: NPS/RTCA
  7. 7. Attractive Nuisances Natural bodies of water are not considered attractive nuisances. Landowners have no responsibility to make these“safe” when they are not designated for swimming. 3. Will children be unable to protect themselves from danger? 4. Will it be easy to remove the hazard without hardship, given the nature of the potential harm? 2. Is it likely that children will access the property? 1. Do you know of the presence of hazardous objects on the property that will attract children? • Railroads • Swimming Pools • Construction Sites • Power lines or towers • Man-made ponds and fountains • Discarded appliances • Abandoned cars • Farm equipment • Wells or holes in the ground • See Online Checklist Landowner is likely to be liable when children under 18 become injured if reasonable care is not taken to eliminate the danger or protect the children. Ye s Photo: jurisfusion.com
  8. 8. Attractive Nuisances Case Study: Limited Liability for Drowning in Non- Swimming Area of Park This document is a review of case law on drownings in natural or man-made bodies of water which provide “open and obvious” dangers. It is common knowledge that drownings have occurred here. If the area is not intended to be a swimming area, the owner has no duty to protect children from the water. Case Study: Child Assumed Risk of Drowning in Closed Pool A 10-year-old girl drowned in a closed swimming pool while swimming with other children but no adult supervision or permission. While there was a hole in the fence that allowed them access, negligence does not necessarily imply liability, and the child clearly knew the risks and dangers associated with swimming in a closed pool, as her mother had instructed her never to swim in the deep end or without adult supervision and a sign stated the same. Photo: Lisa Holzapfel
  9. 9. Dangerous Conditions Is the landowner aware of any dangerous conditions on their property, such as: • Glass and nails in parking lot • Barbed wire at tripping level • Concrete and/or rebar at a river access or swimming site Landowners are not liable for dangerous conditions they are not aware of and are not legally required to check their land for places that might be dangerous. Don’t forget to check fees and attractive nuisances No Case Study: Fatality in Texas City Park A college student in Waco, TX was killed after a natural cliff he was sitting on collapsed underneath him, causing him to fall approximately 60 feet to his death. The City of Waco was sued by the student’s estate, saying that his death was caused by the gross negligence of the city, thus waiving its recreational use statute-based immunity from liability. Thecourtsdeterminedthatalandownergenerallyowes no duty under the recreational use statute to warn or protect against the dangers of natural conditions and that the City did not owe the student a duty in this case.
  10. 10. Landowners are likely to be immune from liability. Don’t forget to check fees and attractive nuisances Yes Has the landowner taken action to remove or reduce the risk of injury? Is the landowner aware of any dangerous conditions on their property, such as: • Glass and nails in parking lot • Barbed wire at tripping level • Concrete and/or rebar at a river access or swimming site Yes No Landowners are not protected if they know of a dangerous condition or deliberately cause an injury. Dangerous Conditions Photo: Risa Shimoda
  11. 11. Public agencies possess sovereign immunity, a legal privilege by which governments are protected from being sued for injuries related to recreational use. Federal Government The Federal Tort Claims Act allows private parties to sue the United States, however the federal government has rarely been sued for damages related to injuries caused by an event that takes place on public lands or waterways. In general, the federal government has a duty to use ‘reasonable care’ to keep the premises safe and to guard and warn the visitor from any hidden danger that presents a reasonably foreseeable risk of harm. Note: If you have questions related to the recreational use of public land, contact the manager of your local land or field office, and if necessary, your state attorney general with specific questions. Public Landowners
  12. 12. State and Local Government State Sovereign Immunity Waiver statutes provide that, in general, states cannot be held liable for a recreation-related injury unless a state specifically waives its immunity. Most local jurisdictions like counties and cities have immunity from legal action related to injury on public land or water. Public Landowners (continued) Recreational Use Easement Limits Liability A higher level of protection may be affected by an additional agreement, such as a recreation easement. Afteralargefloodinthetownof Lyons, Coloradoinitiated mitigation efforts on a local creek and coordinated with the state to build a kayaking“play wave.”Most of the land was owned by the town of Lyons but a ditch company held an easement and ownership of some of the land. A recreational use easement limited the ditch company’s liability. However, under Colorado law, if the surrounding land was privately owned, the owners could limit their liability under the recreational use statute through a recreational use easement. Photo: Lisa Holzapfel
  13. 13. Q: I have a trail across my land and I want to open it to boaters, but I don’t want to get sued. What can I do? A: Get a copy of your state’s Recreational Use Statute from your local law library, online, or call American Whitewater (866-BOAT- 4-AW). Chances are that your state has one that limits your liability considerably. Check the statute to see what is required to ‘open’ your land to the public. Most, but not all, states consider the lack of “no trespassing” signs as implied permission and sufficient to get protection of the statute. Check your state’s statute. Frequently Asked Questions Q: I plan to open a private parking area on my property. Is my liability affected if I charge people to use it? A: In most states, if a landowner charges for the use of his or her land, he or she cannot claim protection from liability under a Recreational Use Statue. This is mainly because the intent of the statute is to open private land to public recreational use, not to insulate commercial enterprises from liability. Some states allow a landowner to charge a small fee for maintenance of the land. Check your state’s statute. Q: What is ’adverse possession,’and does it affect my liability if I grant public access on my property? A: Adverse possession is a way for someone other than the landowner to obtain ownership by continual use or possession of land without permission or objection by the actual landowner. Adverse possession is not directly tied to liability, but it is still an important issue to be aware of. Photo: NPS/RTCA
  14. 14. Frequently Asked Questions • Q: What kind of conduct am I liable for if I allow people to access the river from my land? • A: Most Recreational Use Statutes protect landowners’ conduct unless it falls under the definition of ’malicious conduct’. Generally, this means that landowners are liable for dangerous Q: Do people accessing the river from my land need to sign a waiver so I am protected from liability? A: Generally, no. Most states’ Recreational Use Statutes protect landowners from liability (with some limitations), so a waiver is not necessary. To be extra safe, a landowner can post “enter at your own risk” signs to put users on notice that there may be dangerous conditions on the land. Also, it cannot be stressed enough that these laws put the responsibility of care on the users and not on the landowners. Photo: Tom O’Keefe
  15. 15. Frequently Asked Questions • Q: Suppose emergency medical services travel across my property for a rescue. Who is responsible for restoration costs? • A: This is not so much a question of the landowner’s exposure to the public, but a question of whether a private citizen can seek compensation or other recourse for damage of Q: If I open my land to public access for recreation, could I become subject to adverse possession? A: Generally no. Landowners can open their land to recreational use with the knowledge that they can close it when they wish without worrying about the possibility of the public gaining a permanent right to the land. To help ensure against someone gaining property ownership via adverse possession, you can post “no trespassing” signs and restrict entrances with gates. Photo: NPS/RTCA
  16. 16. Adverse Possession: A way to get ownership by continual use or possession of land without permission or objection by the actual landowner. Attractive Nuisance: In the law of torts, the attractive nuisance doctrine states that a landowner may be held liable for injuries to children trespassing on the land if the injury is caused by a hazardous object or condition on the land that is likely to attract children who are unable to appreciate the risk posed by the object or condition. Duty of Reasonable Care: The land manager has a duty to use reasonable care to keep the premises safe and to guard or warn the visitor from any hidden danger or defect that presents a reasonably foreseeable risk of harm. Glossary Federal Tort Claims Act: Under this law, the United States is liable: ‘for injury or loss of property, or personal injury or death caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee of the Government while acting within the scope of his office or employment, under circumstances where the United States, if a private person, would be liable to the claimant in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred.’ Invitee: Recreationist who enters land for the benefit of the landowner and is required to pay a fee or provide a service in exchange for the right of access. The responsibility of the landowner to the recreationist increases, since a fee or service is required and the recreationist assumes that the property and other conditions are safe. Photo: Tom O’Keefe
  17. 17. Landowner: The legal owner of the land, a tenant, lessee, occupant or person in control of the premises. Some statutes also consider the holder of an easement an“owner.” Liability: The quality or state of being obligated or legally responsible for one’s acts or omissions. Licensee: Someone who enters property with the permission of the landowner and is not required to pay a fee or render a service for the right of access. In other words, licensees enter property to further their own purposes, not the landowners’. Landowners have a greater degree of responsibility to licensees than trespassers in that they have a duty to warn of known dangers. Malicious Conduct: Action by a landowner who willfully, maliciously, or deliberately causes an injury. Many courts require actual knowledge of a dangerous condition, knowledge that an injury could result from that condition, and inaction in the face of such knowledge. Glossary (cont.) Negligence: Four elements of negligence must be met for liability to be established: 1. Existence of Duty 2. Breach of Duty 3. The Breach of Duty was the proximate (legal) cause of harm 4. The victim sustained harm Payment for Use: Most Recreational Use Statutes do not protect landowners from liability if the landowner opens up his or her land in exchange for payment. Whether or not a payment for use takes place seems a relatively easy to determine. However, the issue does arise in litigation and the results vary greatly from state to state. Photo: Bill Curry
  18. 18. Recreational Purpose or Use: Definitions usually include activities such as hiking, swimming, fishing, pleasure driving, nature study, etc. The phrase “includes, but is not limited to” also appears in order to prevent a narrow interpretation of what constitutes a“recreational use.” Recreational Use Statute: A term given to legislation generally intended to promote public recreational use of privately owned land. It grants landowners broad immunity from liability for personal injuries or property damage suffered by land users pursuing recreational activities on the owner’s land. Glossary (cont.) Tort: The legal term for a civil wrong, other than breach of contract that results from when one person’s action causes injury to another and for which a remedy may be obtained, usually in the form of damages. Trespasser: Someone who enters land uninvited and without the consent of the landowner. Usually, landowners are only liable for trespasser injuries that result from willful/malicious misconduct. A key element excusing landowner liability is the lack of knowledge of the trespasser's presence. Sovereign Immunity: A principle with origins in early English common law where the king was immune from suit by his subjects: he could not be held accountable in courts of his own creation. In general, federal and state land managers are not liable for injuries sustained on their respective lands. Photo: NPS/RTCA
  19. 19. RMS thanks the National Park Service for their support and guidance throughout this research and review; American Whitewater for their online resources and expertise of their staff and volunteers; and the individuals listed below for their time and energy spent reviewing, editing, and offering guidance on how best to research and present this information. Acknowledgments Dave Schade - Alaska Department of Natural Resources Kevin Colburn - American Whitewater John Putnam - Kaplan Kirsch & Rockwell LLP Attila Bality, Charlotte Gillis, Julie Isbill, Burnham Martin, Lelia Mellen, Peggy Pings, Linda Stonier, Cassie Thomas, Angie Tornes, and Corita Waters - National Park Service Photo: NPS/RTCA

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