With the winter sports season not too far away, private landowners may face the issue of whether to allow access over their property for recreational activities. While Minnesota’s recreational land use statute may assuage some fears of potential liability, a new court decision may narrow protections for landowners who allow others to recreate on their land free of charge. As a result, it is important for landowners to know how the statute protects them and how it may not.
Purpose of the Statute
Minnesota’s recreational land use statute—codified at Minnesota Statutes sections 604A.20 through 604A.27—exists to promote the public health and welfare through encouraging the use of privately owned lands and waters by the public for beneficial recreational purposes. This policy interest has been recognized in several other states, including Wisconsin, which have enacted similar statutes.
Before discussing how the statute works, it is important to know the meanings of key terms. First, the statute protects “owners” of land, but that term is not limited to persons or entities with title to the land. It also includes life estate holders, tenants, lessees, occupants, holders of utility easements, and other persons or entities in control of the land. In the 2003 case of Kastner v. Star Trails Association, the Minnesota Court of Appeals held that a non-profit snowmobile trail-user organization was an “owner” entitled to protection under the statute because power to direct the management of the trail system amounted to “control” of the land. (References to “landowners” in this article include all persons and entities within the statutory definition.)
The statute applies to use of land for a “recreational purpose,” which is defined broadly to include “winter sports” (presumably including, among other things, skiing and snowshoeing) and numerous other activities such as hiking, bicycling, hunting, fishing, camping, rock climbing, cave exploring, and snowmobiling.
Owners are protected where they have authorized use of their land for recreational purposes “without charge.” “Charge” refers to any admission price or the offering of products for sale to the recreational users by a commercial for-profit enterprise directly related to the use of the land. (The Wisconsin statute is broader, protecting landowners from liability where payment not exceeding $2,000 annually is received for the use of the land for recreational activities.)
Limitation of Owner Liability
Generally, the recreational use statute limits landowner liability in two ways. First, it provides that a landowner who gives written or oral permission for the use of land for recreational purposes without charge owes no duty to (a) keep the land safe for recreational use, (b) warn recreational users of any dangerous condition on the land, or (c) reduce the owner’s own use of the land during any outside recreational use. In fact, under such circumstances, the landowner owes no duty at all to recreational users except to refrain from intentionally taking action to cause injury.
By removing ordinary landowner duties of care, the statute eliminates the landowner’s potential negligence liability on any of the above grounds. Thus, for example, a landowner cannot be held liable to an authorized recreational user who is injured during such use because the landowner failed to warn about a dangerous condition on the land.
Second, the statute provides that by giving written or oral permission for the use of land for recreational purposes without charge, a landowner does not (a) extend any assurance that the land is safe for any purpose, (b) confer upon the recreational user the legal status of a person to whom a duty of care is owed, or (c) assume responsibility for or incur liability for any injury to the user or property caused by an act or omission by the user.
Remaining Landowner Liability
The statute does not eliminate all landowner liability relating to recreational use of land. First, the statute specifically provides that a landowner remains liability for conduct that would entitle a trespasser (i.e., unauthorized entrant) to maintain an action and obtain relief against the owner. However, landowner liability to trespassers is limited in its own regard in that an owner does not owe a duty of care to trespassers unless the owner knows or should know that a trespasser is present on the land. In such cases, the landowner has a duty to warn the trespasser of dangerous conditions on the land which the owner has created or maintained. But, the owner is not required to warn or protect the trespasser from risks that the trespasser knows or should know. An owner is also not liable, except where the owner intentionally causes injury, to a trespasser if the trespasser’s entry on the land was incidental to or arose from access granted for the recreational trail use of land dedicated, leased, or permitted by the owner for recreational trail use.
A landowner also remains liable for injury suffered in any case where the owner charges the persons who enter or go on the land for recreational purposes, except that where the land is leased or dedicated to the state or a municipality, any money or other compensation received by the owner from the state or municipality for the lease or dedication is not a “charge” under the statute.
“General Public” Requirement
As noted above, the purpose of the recreational-use statute is to promote the public health and welfare through encouraging the use of privately owned lands and waters by the public for beneficial recreational purposes. This purpose is part of the law.
In early 2017, the Minnesota Court of Appeals decided in Ouradnik v. Ouradnik that the term “public” as used in the statute means the general public at large and not merely a specific person or group who does not otherwise have a right to enter the land. Applying this definition of “public,” the court held that the statute’s protection did not extend to a landowner whose son was injured while hunting on the land with the landowner’s permission. Thus, a landowner’s liability is not limited under the statute unless the landowner allows the use of its land for recreational purposes to the entire general public without charge.
The Minnesota Supreme Court agreed to review whether the term “public” must be read to mean the entire public at large, and oral arguments are set for early November. But, until the Supreme Court issues its decision (likely in mid-2018), the “general public” requirement is law. And, it may remain the law if the Supreme Court affirms the Court of Appeals decision.
In short, Minnesota’s recreational-use statute benefits the public by encouraging private landowners to permit free access to their land by the general public for recreational use and benefits landowners by limiting potential negligence liability to recreational users. Landowners with additional questions about how the statute might affect them should contact an attorney.
Here’s to a safe and enjoyable winter sports season!
Eric Johnson is an attorney at Fryberger Law Firm, practicing primarily in the area of business litigation. He can be reached at Fryberger’s Duluth office at (218) 722-0861.