A New Direction for Recreational Use Statute?

Posted on Monday, February 22nd, 2016 at 1:00 am    

A recent Appeals Court decision suggests that the court may be taking a closer look at the Massachusetts Recreational Use State, G.L. c.21, section 17C.  The statute, which bars ordinary negligence claims against landowners who allow the public to use their property for recreational purposes “without imposing a charge or fee,” has in recent years been expanded far beyond what the legislature originally intended.

The court in Amaral v Seekonk Grand Prix Corp. rejected a claim by the operator of a go-kart facility that a mother who was injured while watching her sons ride could not recover after being struck by an errant go-kart.  The facility had raised the Recreational Use Statute as a defense, claiming that, since it permitted the mother to watch her sons without paying for the privilege, it was not liable for negligence.

At first blush, this defense seems patently absurd: how could a money-making operation possibly avoid liability to patrons injured through its negligence?  How could a statute which was intended to encourage landowners to allow the public to use open space for hiking, horseback riding and similar activities be used to protect a business? Yet, the go-kart operator was able to point to a line of decisions in which spectators at an event for which admission was not charged could not recover for negligence.  And the Superior Court judge who heard the motion for summary judgment agreed.

Fortunately, common sense prevailed in the Appeals Court.  The court reversed the grant of summary judgment, noting that the plaintiff had purchased admission tickets for her sons to ride the go-karts.  The court noted that “Grand Prix could fully anticipate that a parent accompanying minor children and paying a fee on their behalf would qualify as a paying customer under the statute.”  Because the plaintiff had paid a fee “for her particular use of the land,” her claim was not barred.

The decision still doesn’t go as far as many victims would hope–and there was a much easier way for the court to get there.  The statute does not require that the individual user pay a fee, but merely that the landowner allow recreational use by the public “without imposing a charge or fee.”  The plain language of the statute would seem to exempt commercial money-making endeavors from its scope.