James Nelson resided near a U.S. Air Force Academy base with a trail that he routinely bicycled through. One day he abruptly rode into a sink hole and was severely injured. He brought suit in a district court under the Federal Tort Claims Act and was awarded $7 million in damages. The Academy appealed based on the Colorado Recreational Use Act (RUA), which allows for landowner immunity for injuries that occur to those that they allow usage of the property for recreational purposes. Two signs existed that displayed opposing messages: “Bicycle Path, No Motorized Vehicles” and “Entry Prohibited Without Permission”. The Academy was unaware who erected the “Bicycle Path” sign, or when it was posted. Prior to the accident, the CO Department of Transportation had emailed Academy staff to inform them of their willingness to remove the sign, which faced Interstate 25, yet no response was received. The Academy was aware that the path was used for recreational purposes; however, never confronted or blocked access to the path.
Should Recreational Use Act or Premises Liability Statute Apply?
Under the RUA, the landowner who directly or indirectly, without charge, allows usage of their land for recreational purposes will not be responsible for injuries. If the RUA does not apply, then landowner liability is determined according to the Premises Liability Statute, based on the injured party's status as an invitee, licensee, or trespasser. An invitee is someone on the land for the mutual benefit of both parties. A licensee may be a social guest or on the land to advance their interests or convenience. A trespasser is someone on the property without consent.
Determining Intent in RUA Defense
The academy felt they were covered by the RUA, as they indirectly permitted usage. The lower court had disagreed, finding they did not intend to allow usage of the path, and rather assessed the case under the Premises Liability Act with Mr. Nelson as an invitee. Landowners owe a duty to invitees to maintain the premises in a reasonably safe manner, which they failed to do. The appeals court considered a recreational statute case in Kentucky, whose statute is identical to Colorado's. The court held that a landowner must show awareness of recreational usage, either through words, actions, or inactions.
The Academy was aware of the recreational usage and purposefully demonstrated inaction. Further, they were aware of the “Bicycle Path” sign and took no action to remove it. If intent were required, then the statute would refer only to “direct” permission, rather than “direct or indirect” permission. They had knowledge that the public used the path, and took no action to stop usage; therefore, they are immune under the RUA and the prior ruling was reversed.
If you have been injured due to an unreasonably dangerous condition while on another's property, the landowner may be liable. The Law Firm of Jeremy Rosenthal has been standing up for injured victims in Colorado courtrooms for many years. Contact the office for a complimentary consultation.