Good weather usually draws people outdoors. Some people hike or walk, some people swim, some run, and some bike. There are lots of ways to enjoy the outdoors. Many people use public lands or lands open for use to the public to get outside. Inevitably, some people will be injured enjoying the beautiful Pacific Northwest terrain.
In Washington, these injuries show an interesting intersection of public policy. Generally, Washington is a state that values public safety and holding landowners accountable for maintaining unsafe premises. As a result, an owner or occupier of land might be liable for damages if a person is injured on his or her property.
However, Washington is also a state that values the outdoors. Preserving the environment and nature, outdoor recreation, and outdoor sportsmanship are both economically and cultural cornerstones of the state. But frankly, making the outdoors safe in the same way that we require businesses to be safe might destroy enjoyment of nature.
So, how do we incentivize people and governments to allow recreational use of lands, preserve the environment, and maintain public safety? Something has got to give, and in this instance, Mother Nature wins out. In my view, rightfully so.
Any public or private landowners in Washington who allow members of the public to recreate on their land are not liable for unintentional injuries to people recreating on their land. This is called “Recreational Use Immunity.” There are limits to this. For example, if there are artificial, man-made, conditions that are inconspicuous and known to the landowner, there may still liability to the landowner for injuries.
Let this be a lesson: enjoy the beauty and joy Washington's outdoors have to offer. But be careful because if Mother Nature causes an injury, you probably cannot recover for damages. And for landowners, be aware how your recreational land is used. Look out for and warn against dangerous conditions. Buy insurance, just in case.