Watching a Competitive Sports Event Supersedes Protections Afforded by the Texas Recreational Use Statute

May 1, 2015

The Texas Supreme Court has affirmed a lower court and found that Texas’ recreational use statute, which provides immunity from liability for ordinary negligence to landowners and occupants who open their property for certain enumerated public recreational purposes, does not shield such defendants from a negligence claim by a spectator attending a competitive sports event.
Plaintiffs Sandra and Steve Williams had just finished watching their daughter play a high school soccer game at a University of Texas at Arlington facility, which is leased by the Arlington Independent School District when the incident occurred. Sandra Williams walked down the stairs to a railing, separating the stands from the field, to greet her daughter. The railing was elevated five feet above the artificial turf playing surface. At the area where Williams was standing was a gate. The latch had broken, but the gate had allegedly not been properly secured. Williams, leaning on the gate, fell and suffered injuries.
She ultimately sued UT-Arlington for negligence. The University claimed it was protected by the Recreational Use Statute, which limited its liability in the case to only “intentional acts or acts of gross negligence.”
The Williams’ won at the trial court and appellate level. The defendant appealed to the high court.
In the majority opinion, the justices wrote that the intent of the statute is to encourage the use of property in its natural state, rather than protecting landowners who made improvements and built stadiums for organized sports activities.
“Gathering together in a stadium to cheer a soccer team is not to remove oneself from human habitation, but to embrace it; it is not the pursuit of nature, but rather the celebration of organized human activity,” the court wrote. “… (B)ecause the activity is unlike the others the statute uses to define ‘recreation,’ we conclude that (the Recreational Use Statute) does not catch this activity.”
Tiffany Dowell wrote a piece for the Texas Agriculture Law Blog, suggesting the case “illustrates several bigger picture items that are important.
“First, the case serves as a reminder that the Texas Recreational Use Statute exists and offers liability protection to landowners falling within its parameters. Any Texas landowner allowing any activity that might be considered recreational use should carefully analyze this statute and its potential application.
“Second, the case is a reminder that the statute is not completely clear on exactly what activities are considered to be “recreational use.” Because the liability protection applies only to plaintiffs participating in a recreational activity, this is important for landowners to consider and understand.
“Finally, the fact that courts in other states interpret their recreational use statutes differently is a good reminder that landowners in different states should carefully analyze the recreational use statute in their own state, as there may be important differences between statutes.”
To read the full opinion, click
University of Texas at Arlington v. Williams, Tex. Sup. Ct.; 2015 WL 1285317; 3/20/15


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