County Park Commission Immune under Landowner’s Liability Act for Fall on Golf Course Footbridge

New Jersey Public Entity Law Monthly – Vol. II, Issue 10

By: Betsy G. Ramos, Esq.

The Appellate Division ruled that the Landowner’s Liability Act (“the LLA”), N.J.S.A. 2A:42A-2 et. al., immunized the Somerset County Park Commission (“the Commission”) from a bodily injury claim filed by the plaintiff who fell while crossing a footbridge in the County’s golf course. In Lareau v. Somerset County Park Commission, 2013 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2437 (October 9, 2013), the appeals court found that the LLA protected the Commission from this negligence claim.

On March 1, 2009, the plaintiff had been visiting his father-in-law who lived adjacent to the golf course. During the visit, he decided to take a walk on the course to calibrate his father-in-law’s GPS. During the walk, the plaintiff crossed the footbridge over the stream at the eighth fairway. The bridge was covered with a matting that was similar to an indoor/outdoor carpeting and was in disrepair.

According to the plaintiff, the bridge was slippery, it had no handrails, and had a steep slope. As he was descending the bridge, he fell.

The defendant Commission argued that the plaintiff was a trespasser because the course was not open to the general public. The plaintiff, however, contended that he thought it was a “public park” open to all and he had seen others walking their dogs on the course.

In addition to pursuing immunity based upon the Tort Claims Act, the Commission claimed that it was immune from liability based upon the LLA. Under N.J.S.A. 2A:42A-4 of the LLA, an owner owes no duty to keep its premises safe for use by others for sport or recreational activities or to give warning of any hazardous condition of the land in connection with the use of the structure or by reason of any activity on such premises to persons entering for such purposes.

There are exceptions to the LLA, which the court found inapplicable, such as a willful or malicious failure to warn or where consideration is paid to engage in sport or recreational activity.

The Appellate Division stated that the statute was amended in 1991 to make it clear that the LLA applies, whether the land was in a natural or improved state, or whether the land was the site of a commercial enterprise. The LLA was intended to cover premises that were primarily undeveloped, open and expansive rural and semi-rural properties.

However, the Court noted that the LLA had been interpreted to afford immunity to rural and semi-rural or open tracts of land. The golf course in this matter consisted of an open tract of land in a sparsely populated area. The Appellate Division pointed out that the Commission would have difficulty guarding against intermittent trespassers on the course.

Maintenance of an open tract of land and allowance of access by the general public were precisely the types of conduct the Legislature sought to encourage by enacting the LLA. Thus, the Court found that extending immunity to the Commission would encourage it to allow members of the general public to continue to have limited access to the course for some recreational use. Thus, the Appellate Division upheld the trial court’s order granting summary judgment to the Commission and dismissing the plaintiff’s claim.

This case points out another immunity, available to public entities for negligence claims resulting from falls or accidents in public parks or other open tracts of land, under the Landowner’s Liability Act. In addition to the protections of the Tort Claims Act, public entities should keep the LLA in its arsenal of defenses against these types of claims.

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