Public Entities: Recreational Trail Immunity

By on October 21, 2014 - Comments off

Montenegro v. City of Bradbury (2013) 215 Cal.App.4th 924, 155 Cal.Rptr.3d 732

A woman who sustained injuries after falling over a protruding tree trunk while walking along a pathway beside a roadway, filed suit against the city.  The plaintiff alleged that the exposed tree root and inadequate lighting created a dangerous condition of public property. The city moved for summary judgment, contending that the pathway was a “recreational trail” within the meaning of Government Code section 831.4, subdivision (a), which provides that public entities are not liable for injuries caused by the condition of trails used for certain recreational purposes, including “hiking” and “riding, including animal and all types of vehicular riding,” or for access to such recreation.

The plaintiff opposed the motion, presenting evidence that the pathway was actually a sidewalk, and that it was not in a natural or unimproved state and was located in a residential neighborhood.  The evidence also showed that the pathway was only 6/10ths of a mile long, ran entirely along a roadway, was elevated above the street and was separated from the roadway by a curb. The trial court granted summary judgment and the court of appeal affirmed, finding that the pathway was a recreational trial within the meaning of the statute:

The court’s finding was supported by uncontroverted evidence that the pathway was designated by the City Council as a park and recreational trail when it approved construction of the improvements to the site, and that it was designed to be used by joggers, hikers, bicyclists, and equestrians. Indeed, the evidence established that Bradbury had taken steps to ensure the pathway would accommodate the proposed uses by entering into an agreement with Duarte to create enough space on its side of the fence for those activities to comfortably occur. Moreover, uncontroverted evidence established that members of the public regularly used the pathway for at least two of the recreational purposes listed in the statute—horseback riding and hiking. …

Montenegro points out that she was not engaged in recreation, but was acting as an ordinary pedestrian seeking to avoid traffic, and contends that many would use the pathway for a similar purpose. The fact that a trail has a dual use—recreational and non-recreational—does not undermine section 831.4, subdivision (b) immunity. …

As courts have explained, ensuring immunity for dangerous conditions on recreational trails of all kinds “encourage[s] public entities to open their property for public recreational use.” “ ‘No doubt it is cheaper to build fences and keep the public out than to litigate and pay three, four, five or more judgments each year in perpetuity. But that would deprive the public of access to recreational opportunities. If public entities cannot rely on the immunity for recreational trails, they will close down existing trails and perhaps entire parks where those trails can be found.’ ” The pathway on which Montenegro was injured was designed to be used by the public for multiple recreational purposes. It was landscaped to simulate a natural area to encourage such activity. Uncontroverted evidence established that it was used for one or more of the listed recreational purposes. The trial court thus correctly concluded that the pathway was a recreational trail.

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