California Civil Code Section 846 provides broad immunity for landowners where a person is engaged in recreational activity such as camping, hiking, sightseeing, picnicking, etc. An exception to this immunity is where the landowner has charged a fee for use of the land. This statute is intended to protect landowners from liability for injuries occurring on their natural unimproved land by members of the public using that land.
In a recent case involving a rotten tree falling on a young boy in a campground in San Mateo County, a lawsuit was filed against the County and against Pacific Gas and Electric. The boy suffered catastrophic injuries including amputation of his legs. The County apparently knew that the tree was rotten. PG&E had a powerline easement by the tree and apparently had knowledge of the rotten tree as well. There were appeals by both the County and PG&E asking for complete immunity from liability under California Civil Code Section 846.
In County of San Mateo v. Superior Court, the Court allowed the lawsuit against the County to go forward so that a jury would be able to decide whether a campground could be considered improved land or not for purposes of immunity.
In PG&E v. Superior Court, defendant PG&E sought immunity under Civil Code § 846 claiming that since the campers had paid a fee to the county that PE&E should get the benefit of landowner immunity. In this case of first impression, the court ruled that PG&E did not itself have to receive fees from the people injured on the land to be entitled to unimproved landowner immunity under the statute.
These decisions properly allow, in my opinion, juries to decide most recreational land injury cases. San Mateo County and PG&E had asked for the judge to find immunity as a matter of law and dismiss the cases without a trial.
Below is a photo of the rotten tree stump of the tree that fell on the young boy at the campground.
*this article originally appeared in The Legal Examiner