A question had arisen in Texas appellate courts over the last several years: Would attending a sporting event as a spectator fall under the definition of “recreation” thereby allowing the defendant to raise the Recreational Use Statute as a defense?
Last week, the Texas Supreme Court answered this question in University of Texas at Arlington v. Williams. [Read full opinion here.]
The plaintiff attended her daughter’s high school soccer game at the University of Texas at Arlington football stadium. She watched her daughter’s game through completion. After the game, the plaintiff walked down the stadium steps to the field to wait for her daughter. According to the facts of the case, she leaned over a gate to reach for a form she needed from the school to sign her daughter out and take her home. When the plaintiff leaned on a gate, it opened unexpectedly and she fell five feet onto the field below. She injured her ribs and arm.
She then brought a premises liability suit against the University of Texas at Arlington. The University asserted the Recreational Use Statute as a defense, limiting their liability in the case to only intentional acts or acts of gross negligence. Both the trial court and the court of appeals found in favor of the plaintiff that the recreational use statute did not apply to these facts.
Recreational Use Statute
Last week, as part of our Landowner Liability Series, we discussed in detail the provisions of the Texas Recreational Use Statute, which offers liability protection for certain landowners who allow persons to enter their property for recreational uses. The Recreational Use Statute applies only where the injured person was on the property for a “recreational use.” The statute defines “recreation” as: hunting, fishing, swimming, boating, camping, picnicking, hiking, pleasure driving (including off-road motorcycles and the use of ATVs), nature study (including bird watching), cave exploration, waterskiing and other water sports, bicycling and mountain biking, walking dogs, radio control flying activities, and “any other activity associated with enjoying nature or the outdoors.”
The Court looked back to the original language of the Recreational Use Statue, passed in 1965, which applied only to hunting, fishing or camping on private property. Over the last 50 years, the Legislature expanded the reach of the activities falling as “recreation” under the statute. The broad “any other activity associated with enjoying nature or the outdoors” language was added in 1997. The Court reasoned that the intent of the statute is to encourage the use of property in its natural state, rather than protecting landowners who made improvements and built stadiums for organized sports activities. “Gathering together in a stadium to cheer a soccer team is not to remove oneself from human habitation, but to embrace it; it is not the pursuit of nature, but rather the celebration of organized human activity.” In summary, the court concluded that “because the outdoors and nature are not integral to the enjoyment of this activity and because the activity is unlike the others the statute uses to define ‘recreation,’ we conclude that [the Recreational Use Statute] does not catch this activity.”
Interestingly, courts in several other states have considered this issue and reached the opposite conclusion. For example, the Massachusetts Appellate Court, South Carolina Court of Appeals, and the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court all found that watching baseball was covered by their state’s respective recreational use statute. Nevertheless, the Texas Supreme Court distinguished the Texas Recreational Use statutory language from language found in these other state statutes.
As you may be aware, there are 9 justices on the Texas Supreme Court. There are times, like in this case, where justices may agree on the outcome, but disagree on the proper reasoning to reach the same conclusion. In that event, justices can choose to file a concurring opinion, explaining what they believe to be the correct reasoning to reach a decision in the case. Additionally, if a justice disagrees with the outcome of the case, he or she may file a dissenting opinion, expressing his or her views on how the case should have been decided. Several additional opinions were issued in this case.
First, Justice Guzman, joined by Justice Willett, filed a concurring opinion, which may be read here. While these justices agree that the Recreational Use Statute should not apply, they disagree about the activity that should be considered. Although the plaintiff was at the stadium to watch her daughter’s soccer game, at the precise time she was injured, she was attempting to acquire and sign forms authorizing the high school to release her daughter after the soccer match. It is this activity–that was ongoing at the time of the injury–that these justices believe should be considered in deciding the application of the recreational use statute. When using this framework, the justices determined that the activity of obtaining and signing release paperwork did not constitute “recreation” under the statute. Further, the justices explained that “the Legislature did not purport to incorporate an activity merely because it occurs outdoors.”
Next, Justice Boyd issued a concurring opinion that makes clear he does not believe the Recreational Use Statute is as limited as the majority opinion may infer. [Read concurring opinion here.] Specifically, he does not believe that the term “recreation” is limited to property being used in its natural state, or that sports or spectating should categorically be excluded. Thus, while Justice Boyd would agree the statute does not apply under these facts, he “would not hold…that the statute can never apply to a case involving an activity that the statute does not list as an example of ‘recreation.'”
Finally, Justices Johnson and Brown filed an opinion concurring in part, and dissenting in part. Specifically, Justice Johnson reasons that because the Recreational Use Statute specifically includes bird-watching as recreational activity, spectators at a sporting event should also be considered a recreational users. “Simply put, people enjoy many kinds of outdoor activities in different ways.” [Read opinion here.]
Why Does This Matter?
Although the specific facts of this case will likely not matter to agricultural producers in Texas, the case illustrates several bigger picture items that are important.
First, the case serves as a reminder that the Texas Recreational Use Statute exists and offers liability protection to landowners falling within its parameters. Any Texas landowner allowing any activity that might be considered recreational use should carefully analyze this statute and its potential application.
Second, the case is a reminder that the statute is not completely clear on exactly what activities are considered to be “recreational use.” Because the liability protection applies only to plaintiffs participating in a recreational activity, this is important for landowners to consider and understand.
Finally, the fact that courts in other states interpret their recreational use statutes differently is a good reminder that landowners in different states should carefully analyze the recreational use statute in their own state, as there may be important differences between statutes. To view your state’s recreational use statue, click here.