AW News – An important Win for Recreation in Washington!
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Words and Photography: Evan Stafford
Washington State Supreme Court Upholds Recreational Use Immunity Law
American Whitewater works to protect the public’s rights (your rights) related to recreational use of private and public lands which the nation’s rivers and streams run through. Fortunately for whitewater paddlers and other recreational users, every state in the nation has enacted laws that greatly limit both private and public landowner liability. These laws are commonly referred to as recreational use immunity, and in general they bar lawsuits against a landowner from individuals who are hurt while recreating on land the landowner has opened to recreational access.
These laws in most cases were enacted to encourage private and public landowners to open up their lands for recreational use free of charge and to assuage their fears of being sued in the event of an accident on their land. This is especially important for whitewater boating because of some landowners perception of risk in our sport and the fragile nature of many of our state’s right to float laws. The effect is that private landowners and public land mangers are more likely to welcome whitewater boating and other recreational activities if they are protected from liability. Hence American Whitewater stresses personal responsibility for whitewater boating and this notion is supported by these laws.
In Washington state one of these recreational use immunity laws was challenged when a cyclists was injured on public land. In Lockner v. Pierce County, a Court of Appeal’s decision held that Washington’s recreational immunity statute was limited to land opened to the public solely for recreational purposes. This would mean that any lands also opened up to timber sales, hydropower production, scientific study or anything else in a wide range of multiple uses we find on lands across Washington would be open to lawsuits stemming from accidents to recreational users on those lands. This was a reversal of a lower courts decision to apply the recreational use immunity statute and to grant a summary judgment in favor of the county, dismissing the cyclists suit over her injuries.
American Whitewater found this decision especially troubling considering the amount of paddling in Washington which occurs on lands leased for timber harvest and/or hydropower production, so we joined with a coalition of recreation groups to enter a, “friend of the court” or amicus brief, urging a reversal of this decision. We’re proud to report that in a unanimous decision, the Washington Supreme Court in Lockner v. Pierce County reversed the Court of Appeals ruling, affirming that Washington’s recreational use immunity law covers any lands opened for free public use, regardless of if the land in question is used solely for recreational use or if the land has been opened up to other uses.
We’d like to offer a huge thank you to the Pacifica Law Group for representing us and preparing our amicus brief! Protecting Washington’s recreation use immunity laws is important for paddlers across the nation. When these laws are weakened it creates a blueprint for other state’s to weaken their laws. Cheers to a hard fought and important victory for the recreational community in Washington and beyond!