Appeals Court Affirms that School District is Protected by Recreational Use Statute

Sep 30, 2016

In a unanimous decision, a panel of judges at a Washington state appeals court affirmed a ruling dismissing a lawsuit filed by a teenager, who suffered an injury in a pickup basketball game and subsequently sued the school district, which owns the facility. In so ruling, the appeals court agreed that Washington’s recreational use statute, RCW 4.24.210, was applicable.
 
The teenager, John Archer, was playing on an outdoor court on the grounds of Sunnyside Elementary School, a school within the Marysville School District. The court noted that the playground is fenced on all sides, but is not locked. Outside of regular school hours, including on the weekends, the playground and the basketball facilities are open to the public for use at no charge.
 
On Saturday, January 25, 2014, Archer was playing basketball when a pole supporting the backboard and hoop collapsed and caused injuries to Archer’s face. Archer sued the district, alleging negligence.
 
The district moved for summary judgment, arguing that it was entitled to immunity under the recreational use immunity statute, RCW 4.24.210. That statute provides landowners who allow members of the public to use their lands for purposes of outdoor recreation immunity from liability for unintentional injuries to such users. RCW 4.24.210(1). The trial court initially denied the district’s motion for summary judgment. It reasoned that there was an issue of material fact as to whether immunity actually applies, because the district had a playground equipment policy that indicated it would provide safe playground equipment. The district filed a motion for reconsideration, arguing that the playground equipment policy did not create a duty and that it was entitled to recreational use immunity. The trial court granted the district’s motion for reconsideration, granted the district’s underlying motion for summary judgment, and dismissed Archer’s claims with prejudice. Archer appealed.
 
On appeal, the panel noted that RCW 4.24.210 states in relevant part:
 
(1) … Any public or private landowners, hydroelectric project owners, or others in lawful possession and control of any lands whether designated resource, rural, or urban, or water areas or channels and lands adjacent to such areas or channels, who allow members of the public to use them for the purposes of outdoor recreation, which term includes, but is not limited to, the cutting, gathering, and removing of firewood by private persons for their personal use without purchasing the firewood from the landowner, hunting, fishing, camping, picnicking, swimming, hiking, bicycling, skateboarding or other non-motorized wheel-based activities, aviation activities including, but not limited to, the operation of airplanes, ultra-light airplanes, hang gliders, parachutes, and paragliders, rock climbing, the riding of horses or other animals, clam digging, pleasure driving of off-road vehicles, snowmobiles, and other vehicles, boating, kayaking, canoeing, rafting, nature study, winter or water sports, viewing or enjoying historical, archaeological, scenic, or scientific sites, without charging a fee of any kind therefor, shall not be liable for unintentional injuries to such users.
 
 
Archer’s primary argument on appeal was that the legislature did not intend for recreational use immunity to provide immunity to public school districts. He claimed that “it would be absurd and unjust to conclude that the 1967 legislature would repeal school districts’ tort immunity for defective playground athletic equipment only to reinstate it via recreational use immunity without being explicit,” according to the appeals court.
 
The appeal court was not buying it, declining “Archer’s invitation to disregard what became a well-settled principle of law when the Washington State Supreme Court decided McCarver (McCarver v. Manson Park and Irrigation District, 92 Wn.2d 370, 374, 597 P.2d 1362 (1979)).”
 
Archer also argued on appeal that the district “failed to prove that it intended to open its playground to the public for outdoor recreation purposes.”
 
Central to the plaintiff’s argument was Camicia v. Howard S. Wright Construction Company, 179 Wn.2d 684, 697, 317 P.3d 987 (2014). “In Camicia, the plaintiff sustained injuries when she was thrown from her bike on the Interstate I-90 bicycle trail located in the city of Mercer Island,” wrote the appeals court. “The city moved for summary judgment, claiming recreational use immunity. The Camicia court held that summary judgment was improper. It concluded that there were disputed issues of fact as to whether the trail served a recreational purpose as opposed to a transportation purpose. It stated that where land is open to the public for some other purpose—for example as a part of a public transportation corridor—the inducement of recreational use immunity is unnecessary.”
 
The appeals court continued: “(A)t the time Archer was injured, school was not in session nor was the school using the playground for school-related purposes. And, unlike a bike trail which may be open for transportation in addition to recreation purposes, it is difficult to contemplate what the school district’s alternative intent would be in keeping the playground open to the public during these other times.”
 
Among the other arguments was Archer’s contention that basketball is not an outdoor recreation activity to which RCW 4.24.210 applies.
 
“Archer argues that competitive team sports like basketball are more like watching a performance because they are usually played indoors, and are not similar to the outdoor-only activities listed in RCW 4.24.210,” wrote the appeals court. Ultimately, the panel disagreed, writing that “playing basketball is a physical activity commonly played outdoors on playgrounds where basketball hoops have been erected.”
 
To see the opinion, visit: https://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/pdf/734491.pdf
 
John Archer v. Marysville School District; Ct. App. Wash., Div. 1; No. 73449-1-I, 2016 Wash. App. LEXIS 1708; 7/25/16
 
Attorneys of Record: (for appellant) John Budlong, Law Offices of John Budlong, Edmonds, WA; Tara L Eubanks, The Budlong Law Firm, Edmonds, WA; David Jay Sadick, Attorney at Law, Lynnwood, WA; George M Ahrend, Ahrend Law Firm PLLC, Moses Lake, WA. (for respondent) Emma O Gillespie, Preg O’Donnell & Gillett, PLLC, Seattle, WA.


 

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