Legislature restores recreational immunity to school districts
Friday, June 16, 2017
A bill preserving recreational immunity for public landowners, one of OSBA’s major legislative priorities, cleared the House 54-4 Wednesday after being passed unanimously by the Senate.
Senate Bill 327 would fix a loophole created by the Oregon Supreme Court’s 2016 ruling in Johnson v. Gibson.
The case involved a blind jogger’s personal injury claim after stepping in a hole created by a city employee in a park owned by the city of Portland. The city has the legal defense of so-called “recreational immunity,” established under the Oregon Public Use of Lands Act. The basic idea of recreational immunity is that a landowner – such as a city, county or school district – can permit people to use land for recreation. As long as no fees are charged, the landowner is legally immune from injury lawsuits. In exchange for the landowner opening the land and facilities for public use, those who use the land or facilities cannot sue if they are harmed.
Recreational immunity is important to public and private landowners alike for public benefits such as hiking trails on private land, school playgrounds used outside school hours, and city and county parks. It makes access possible without overwhelming insurance costs.
The Johnson ruling punched a major hole in the doctrine. The Supreme Court held that the Public Use of Lands Act protected the city but did not extend that protection to the employee. Because the city will indemnify the employee and pay for all costs, this presented an alternative method to sue the landowner. Landowners, including school districts, would face the choice of closing properties to the public or facing potentially increased insurance costs.
SB 327 would extend recreational immunity to employees, volunteers and others working on a landowner’s behalf. After intense lobbying by advocates for the bill, including OSBA, cities, counties, and private landowners, the bill needs only Gov. Kate Brown’s signature to become law.
“This allows school districts to leave the campuses and playgrounds open so the public can continue to use them,” said Lori Sattenspiel, OSBA interim director of legislative services.