Are Georgia Parks immune from Lawsuits When they don’t charge Admission?

bicyclistSituated just outside Atlanta, Stone Mountain Park serves as a venue for many important Metro Atlanta outdoor events. Although most are characterized only by revelry, not all go off without incident. Indeed, one such unfortunate event was at the heart of a recent decision from the Georgia Court of Appeals, Stone Mountain Mem. Assn. v. Amestoy, which involved the untimely death of a bicyclist at Stone Mountain.

Viewed in a light favorable to the plaintiff, the widow of the deceased bicyclist, the evidence is as follows. At around 7:30 a.m. on the day of the bicyclist’s death, members of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association Public Safety Department were making preparations on Robert E. Lee Blvd. in anticipation for a 5K run that was set to begin at 8 a.m. These preparations included the placement of side-by-side barricades across the southbound lanes of Robert E. Lee Blvd. The barricade had orange and white strips and bore “do not enter” signs. An official was stationed near the barricade, but he left suddenly at one point in order to urinate. While the official was in the restroom, a different department official saw two bicyclists maneuver around the barricades. About five to ten minutes later, the deceased man was observed riding his bike toward the same barricades at what one witness described as a “normal” speed. The deceased man had his head down, and as he traveled between the barricades, his bike made contact with one of them, causing him to be thrown off. Although he was wearing a helmet, the victim suffered head trauma, which ultimately led to his death.

Some time thereafter, the widow of the deceased man brought a negligence claim against Stone Mountain Memorial Association (“SMMA”), a fully self-supported state authority that owns the park. SMMA eventually moved for summary judgment, arguing, inter alia, that it was immunized from liability under Georgia’s Recreational Property Act. The trial court denied the motion, but it certified the question of whether SMMA was immunized under the Recreational Property Act for immediate appellate review. On this interlocutory review, the Georgia Court of Appeals found that the Recreational Property Act did, in fact, immunize SMMA from liability, and it reversed.

In relevant part, the Recreational Property Act, which applies to land “open to the public for recreational purposes [to which] the owner does not charge an admission fee,” Gayle v. Frank Callen Boys & Girls Club, Inc., 322 Ga. App. 412, 413 (2013), provides that the “owner of land owes no duty of care to keep the premises safe for entry or use by others for recreational purposes or to give any warning of a dangerous condition . . . on the premises to persons entering for recreational purposes,” O.C.G.A. § 51-3-22. In enacting the Recreational Property Act, the Georgia legislature sought “to encourage owners of land to make land . . . available to the public for recreational purposes by limiting the owners’ liability [to] persons entering . . . for recreational purposes.” O.C.G.A. § 51-3-20. However, immunity under the Recreational Property Act does not apply when there is a “willful or malicious failure to guard or warn against a dangerous condition.” O.C.G.A. § 51-3-25 (1).

As an initial matter, it should be noted that even though the purpose of the law is to encourage private land owners to make land open to the public, the Supreme Court of Georgia has held that it also applies to government-owned land held open to the public for gratuitous recreational use. See Stone Mountain Mem. Assn. v. Herrington, 225 Ga. 746, 748-49 (1969). Since the Recreational Property Act applied to the land at issue, the pertinent question was reduced to whether there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the exception for a willful or malicious failure to guard or warn applied. The Court of Appeals found that it did not.

For the exception to apply, a plaintiff must show that the defendant had actual knowledge of each of the following:  (1) the property was being used for recreational purposes; (2) a condition existed that created an unreasonable risk of death or serious bodily harm; (3) the condition was not apparent to those using the property; and (4) the property owner chose not to warn users, in disregard of the possible consequences. Gayle, 322 Ga. App. at 415. In the current case, the Court of Appeals found that the plaintiff had not propounded sufficient evidence to establish that the dangerous condition, the barricades, was not apparent to those using the property. In particular, the Court noted the testimony from an investigating officer, who stated that the barricades were clearly visible from a distance. This testimony was corroborated by a “conspicuity test” that established that, given the conditions at the time, the barricades would have been visible from at least a couple hundred feet away. Although the plaintiff enlisted an expert who testified that the gap in the barricades was only visible from 15 feet away, the Court noted that this testimony did not undermine that the fact that the barricades themselves were visible to guests. In light of this evidence, the Court of Appeals concluded that there was insufficient evidence to establish that SMMA had actual knowledge that the barricades weren’t apparent to those using the property. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s denial of summary judgment.

Although many people would not expect they would need to prove anything beyond ordinary negligence to establish liability in these circumstances, the law is replete with statutes like the Recreational Property Act that impose heavier burdens than typically expected. Indeed, even if a victim believes his case is one of standard negligence, he should still consider finding experienced counsel who can determine which rules apply. The Atlanta premises liability attorneys at Christopher Simon Attorney at Law have represented Georgia residents injured on varying types of property and are prepared to assist others. Indeed, if you’ve been injured on the property of another party, recreational or otherwise, and are curious about your legal options, feel free to contact us to schedule a free case evaluation.

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