Ohio, like all other states, has enacted a “Recreational Use” statute that provides landowners immunity from civil lawsuits if certain conditions are met. In order to encourage property owners to make their land available to the public for recreational use states decided to shield such landowners from liability against premises liability lawsuits.
Ohio’s legislature first enacted the Ohio Recreational Use statute in 1963. It defines recreational use as hunting, fishing, trapping, camping, hiking, swimming, operating a snowmobile, operating an all-purpose vehicle, operating a four-wheel drive motor vehicle, as well as engaging in “other recreational pursuits.” Generally, under premises liability law, a landowner has a duty to those who are on his or her property to provide a reasonably safe environment. If the landowner fails to do so, then he or she would be liable for property damage or personal injury that resulted from such a breach of duty. Under the Recreational Use statute landowners owe recreational users no duty of care. This means that a landowners does not have to make sure the property is safe from hidden dangers or warn recreational users of hazards. Ohio landowners have successfully defended premises liability claims based on recreational user immunity in cases where a motorcyclist was injured and his passenger killed when he hit a tree that had fallen into a pathway, Estate of Finley v. Cleveland Metroparks, (2010), 189 Ohio App.3d 139; where a skater was injured while trying to avoid a vehicle, Gudliauskas v. Lakefront State Park, 2005 WL 2711087; and where a rolling garbage bin damaged a parked vehicle, Raymond v. Rocky Fork State Park, 2003 WL 22765268.
However, there are limitations to recreational use immunity. A landowner loses protection under the statute if he or she charges the public a fee to use the property for recreational purposes. A landowner would also likely not be protected if the landowner’s willful or malicious conduct resulted in injury to a recreational user. Furthermore, Ohio courts seem to be willing to narrowly interpret the Recreational Use statute. For example, the Ohio Supreme Court did not allow a governmental landowner to assert recreational immunity where an activity on the premises was distinct from the recreational premises itself. In Ryll v. Columbus Fireworks Display Company and the City of Reynoldsburg, 95 Ohio St.3d 467 (2002), Daniel Ryll was killed on July 4, 1996 when shrapnel hit him during a fireworks display. The Supreme Court of Ohio held that there was no recreational immunity available for the City of Reynoldsburg because Ryll’s injury was caused not by the recreational premises, but by an activity on the premises.
A result of recreational use immunity statutes such as Ohio’s is that there are more locations open for recreational activities than there would likely otherwise be. In the absence of such immunity many landowners would be unwilling to take on the financial risk, putting a greater burden on municipalities to fund recreational locales. On the other hand when recreational users are injured, they often experience significant financial burdens as a direct result, including medical bills, property loss and lost wages. While it is admirable for Ohio and other states to encourage public recreational use of private property, is it fair for victims and their families to have no legal recourse?