Court of Appeals Addresses Novel Question under Georgia’s Recreational Property Act

standsThe Georgia Recreational Property Act, O.C.G.A. § 51-3-20 et seq., generally immunizes both private and governmental property owners from many forms of negligence liability when the owner of such property makes it available for recreational purposes free of charge. In a recent decision, The Mayor and Aldermen of the City of Garden City v. Harris, the Georgia Court of Appeals dealt with an interesting issue of first impression regarding the application of this expansive law. Specifically, the Court of Appeals needed to determine whether a city was immunized from liability if it did not charge the injured person a fee but charged others a fee to use the property.

The incident at issue in Harris occurred on November 10, 2012. On that day, a family, which included a young child, attended a youth football game at Garden City Stadium, a recreational facility owned and maintained by the City of Garden City. The entrance gate of the facility—at which there was a no-trespassing sign posted—was located next to a ticket booth. The admittance fee structure was as follows. Spectators under the age of six were not charged a fee, children older than six were charged $1, and adults were charged $2. The parents paid the applicable admittance fees for themselves and their children older than six. Their young daughter, however, was under the age of six and therefore was not charged a fee. During the game, the young daughter and her siblings left the bleachers where they had been seated with their parents to procure goods from the concession stand. While returning to the seats, the young child slipped and fell through a space between the bleachers and landed on the ground below. As a result of the fall, she sustained various injuries.

After this incident, the parents of the young child brought suit, individually and on behalf of their daughter, against the City. The City ultimately moved for summary judgment, arguing, inter alia, that it was immune from liability pursuant to the Georgia Recreational Property Act. The trial court denied the motion for summary judgment, but since its ruling on whether the Recreational Property Act applied rested on unsettled law and could, if in error, dispose of the case, the trial court certified its order for immediate interlocutory review by the Georgia Court of Appeal.

To the City’s likely frustration, the Georgia Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s ruling, finding that the Recreational Property Act did not apply even if the directly injured party did not pay an entrance fee. In relevant part, the charge exception to the Recreational Property Act provides the immunity provided under the Act does not apply to “injur[ies] suffered in any case when the owner . . . charges the person or persons who enter or go on the land for the recreational use thereof.” O.C.G.A. § 51-3-25 (2). The City argued that this charge exception only applies to the injuries of guests who pay a fee to enter and therefore did not apply to the claims at issue here, for it was undisputed that the young child had not been charged any fee. The Court of Appeal, however, found the City’s reasoning unpersuasive.

First, the Court found that the fee imposed by the city to enter was a “charge” within the meaning of the Recreational Property Act. See O.C.G.A. § 51-3-21 (1) (defining “charge” as “the admission price or fee asked in return for invitation or permission to enter or go upon the land”). Although the entrance fees at issue here were nominal, the Court reasoned that they were still a charge for entrance onto the land rather than, as the City argued, an incidental payment. C.f., e.g., South Gwinnett Athletic Assn. v. Nash, 220 Ga. App. 116, 117-18 (1996) (holding that Little League registration fees were not a “charge” within the meaning of the Recreational Property Act because they were not collected for entrance onto the land but instead used to provide league necessities, such as uniforms and umpires). In addition, the Court, citing O.C.G.A. § 51-3-25, concluded that even if the fee were used to provide maintenance of the facility, the categorization of the fee depended simply on whether it was charged to enter the land rather than on what it was used to achieve after being acquired.

Likewise, the Court of Appeals found the City’s statutory construction argument unpersuasive. Specifically, the City construed the language of the specific Recreational Property Act immunity provision at issue here to provide immunity if the person actually injured was not charged a fee, even if others are charged a fee. See O.C.G.A. § 51-3-23 (2) (“an owner of land who either directly  . . . invites or permits without charge any person to use the property for recreational purposes does not thereby . . . [c]onfer upon such person the legal status of an invitee or licensee to whom a duty of care is owed.” (emphasis added)). The Court, however, found this to be a strained reading of the statute as a whole, and it noted that the charge exception makes clear that the other provisions do not apply to “injuries suffered in any case when the owner of land charges the person or persons who enter or go on the land for the recreational use thereof.”  O.C.G.A. § 51-3-25 (2) (emphasis added). Accordingly, the Recreational Property Act only applies if “the property is open to the public for recreational purposes, and the owner does not charge an admission fee.” Gayle v. Frank Callen Boys & Girls Club, 322 Ga. App. 412, 414 (2013) (emphasis added). Accordingly, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s denial of summary judgment, so the case may proceed to trial.

Despite the wide scope of the the Recreational Property Act, there are exceptions to this law. Indeed, if you have been injured on recreational property as a result of the landowner’s possible negligence, you should still consider finding experienced counsel to help you determine whether the Recreational Property Act does, in fact, preclude your claims. The Atlanta premises liability attorneys at Christopher Simon Attorney at Law have represented a number of litigants who have been injured on both public and private property, and they are prepared to help you assess the viability of a possible claim. Indeed, if you have recently been injured as a result of possible negligence on the land of another party and are curious about your legal options, feel free to contact us and schedule a free case evaluation.

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