Important Supreme Court Ruling on Personal Injury

Last Friday, the Washington State Supreme Court issued a ruling that helps to clear up an interesting debate in personal injury law. Washington State law, specifically RCW 4.24.210, gives landowners immunity from personal injury lawsuits if their property is open to the public for recreational purposes, such as hunting, fishing, camping, or hiking, so long as they don’t charge a fee.

This law is a great benefit to the public, because it incentivizes public and private entities to open recreational spaces, such as parks, paths, hiking trails, and camp sites for everyone to enjoy. It assuages the fear felt by many city administrators and private companies, who want to open up land for the entire public to enjoy, but fear lawsuits from individuals who hurt themselves on the property. Everyone benefits.

An important question, then, is how do we define a “recreational” space? If most people use a piece of land for recreational use, but it was originally intended for another use, does the landowner receive immunity from personal injury lawsuits?

The Washington State Supreme Court took that question head on last Friday, in a case called Camicia vs. City of Mercer Island.

 What happened in this case

 Susan Camicia, an avid outdoors enthusiast, was training for a triathlon and cycling on Mercer Island on June 19, 2006. She was cycling on the well-known I-90 bicycle trail, which runs all the way from Seattle to Mercer Island. Of vital importance for the case, it is the only non-motorized path across Lake Washington to Mercer Island.

Howard Wright Construction Co. was working on a project near the trail. Though they fenced off their site, part of the fencing went outside the project zone and into the trail. Camicia approached the site, saw the misplaced fencing, and veered left to avoid it. Unfortunately, while she was able to avoid the fence, she ran into a wooden post in the middle of the trail, a feature designed to prevent cars from driving on the path. Her injuries were very severe; she somersaulted over her bike’s handlebars, breaking her neck. Today, she remains a near-quadriplegic, with only a very small bit of mobility and strength in her hands.

Camicia sued the Howard Wright Construction Co. and the City of Mercer Island, alleging that both entities were negligent in creating the conditions that caused her injury, namely, placing fencing on the clearly-marked path.  The City of Mercer Island claimed immunity: they said that the trail was intended for recreational use, and therefore, they could not be held liable for Camicia’s injuries.

Initially, the city won the case. Camicia appealed, and the appeals court reversed the decision, ruling in her favor. The city then appealed that decision to the Supreme Court of Washington, setting the stage for a showdown in the state’s highest court.

The Supreme Court’s Decision

 The Supreme Court had to answer a difficult question; was the I-90 bicycle trail intended for recreational use? Or, as Camicia claimed, was its primary purpose transportation? If the land’s use was classified as transportation, the city could not claim immunity from any liability for her injuries.

On the one hand, this might seem like an easy question to answer. Clearly, the vast majority of people, including Camicia, use the path for recreational purposes, and the path was maintained with that use in mind.

On the other hand, however, several legal facts definitely buttressed her claims. First, the path is the only non-motorized path from Seattle to Mercer Island. Certainly, the distances between the cities are such that most would want to drive a car, but if one wanted to bicycle or walk the journey, this path was the only option.

Second, the deed for the property suggests that it was established for transportation. Its previous owner, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), gave the land to the city in 1987. In 2000, WSDOT executed a deed for the land, clarifying that, “It is understood and agreed that the above referenced property is transferred for road/street purposes only, and no other use shall be made of said property without obtaining prior written approval of the grantor.”

In other words, though city experts and avid users agreed the path was for recreational use, and always had been, the deed confirmed that the land was explicitly transferred to the city under the assumption and condition that it be used and maintained for transportation.

The Supreme Court ultimately ruled 5-3 in favor of Camicia. The court’s majority opinion noted that WSDOT had conducted a review of the property in 2002, concluding that it was primarily for transportation. In addition, the court noted that when the trail was built, the federal and state funds used to build it were appropriated for transportation purposes.

Moreover, the opinion quotes the deed to the land, which seems to not only establish that the trail is intended for transportation, but also seems to explicitly forbid the city to use it for other purposes without receiving permission from WSDOT.

The court took the city’s ultimate argument to its logical, but absurd limit. In Seattle, the city must maintain the streets and sidewalks, and is responsible when its failure to do so causes injuries. Yet, under Mercer Island’s legal theory, Seattle could claim immunity, since tourists use Seattle’s streets and sidewalks while sightseeing and visiting historic landmarks. In that sense, the city of Seattle could argue its streets were intended for recreational use, when in fact they were obviously designed for transportation.

We are pleased with the court’s decision, not just because we believe that Camicia is entitled to her day in court, but because there are wider issues at play that could affect the rights of individuals injured on public and private property.

If the city had received immunity in this case, it would set a wide-reaching precedent, causing other entities to potentially claim that even incidental recreational use of their property entitled them to immunity from liability.

Even more importantly, it would have harmed the current incentives for cities and private entities to take care in protecting the public when building spaces that are open to the public. The entity building and maintaining the space is in the best position to see potential dangers and take action, and the law should encourage them to do just that.