Recreational Use Immunity: Protecting Landowners From Risks In Public Recreational Activities

June 26, 2019

It seems sometimes that no good deed goes unpunished. Landowners who permit access to their property for outdoor enthusiasts to engage in their favorite recreational activities – such as camping, hiking and hunting – could risk liability for doing so.

But a Wisconsin law called the Recreational Use Immunity statute provides private landowners a layer of protection against lawsuits for injuries or property damage. It encourages them to keep their land open for use in recreational activities.

Enacted four decades ago, the Recreational Use Immunity statute places the risk of using the property for recreation on the recreational user. It protects the landowner or landlord from being sued if the biker, snowmobiler or other individual is injured while using the property for recreational purposes.

Receiving the benefit of that immunity starts with throwing open the gate and allowing the public access for recreational purposes.

The landowner generally doesn’t owe responsibility to any recreational user in terms of

  • keeping the property safe for recreational activities
  • inspecting the property regularly
  • giving warnings for unsafe conditions, uses or activities on the property.

That includes no responsibility to monitor the property’s buildings, structures, bodies of water or other improvements.

Not only are the landowner’s duties minimal, but the list of recreational activities that are covered is broad. Essentially any outdoor sport, game or educational activity undertaken for the purpose of exercise, relaxation or pleasure applies. That includes rock-climbing, hang gliding, cutting wood, driving all-terrain vehicles and participating in agricultural tourism.

But there are some important exceptions to the landowner’s protection from liability under the statute. For example an organized team-sport activity that’s sponsored by the property’s owner would not be covered by the statute. Sponsoring a team requires the landowner to plan or pay for the activity’s organization. But that landowner would likely have recreational immunity if he built a venue or course for recreational events, opened it to the public and a person was injured when accessing the property on their own and without the landowner’s specific involvement.

Other than sponsoring a team activity, there are a few other notable exceptions where a landowner may also be liable. One exception is if the landowner collects more than $2,000 in payments during a given calendar year through profit-making ventures such as admission fees or selling concessions to users of the property. That exception is intended to discourage private landowners from opening their property just for commercial purposes. In calculating the $2,000 limit, landowners need to be careful because nonmonetary gifts are also considered. For example if a hunter gives a landowner an expensive bottle of liquor in exchange for using the land during deer season, that may contribute to the $2,000 annual limit.

There are a few relevant exceptions when gifts are permissible. To continue the same example, if that same hunter gave the landowner a deer, fish or other wild animal he shot or caught, that would not count against the $2,000 limit. Additionally nonmonetary benefits as a result of a recreational activity are exempted – such as a trapper who, while on the property, traps a fox that has been killing the landowner’s chickens. Another exception is that a landowner can collect a payment of less than $5 if a person is gathering a product of nature on the property – such as berries or lumber.

In sum the statute has several exceptions that should be reviewed carefully before a landowner relies on the exclusions from the $2,000 limit.

Finally there are some situations where the immunity does not apply through the landowner’s actions. Chiefly that occurs when the landowner knows of an unsafe condition and ensures the recreational user is unaware – or the landowner takes steps to cause harm to another. Additionally the immunity does not apply to harm caused to a landowner’s employee within the employee’s scope of his or her duties.

Wisconsin’s Recreational Use Immunity statute provides substantial protection to landowners who choose to open their lands to allow others to enjoy more of Wisconsin’s outdoors. But careful consideration of the limits and exceptions in the statute is a good idea before the risk of injury occurs.

© 2019 Agri-ViewMadison, WI.  Reprinted with permission.

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