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Vancouver, Washington

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Don Jacobs
Don Jacobs
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Recreational injury – who is responsible?

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Summer is upon us in the great northwest and people are taking to the outdoors. State parks, federal lands and large private landholders such as timber companies see lots of visitors using their land for recreation. People riding bikes, hiking, bird watching and scouting out fall hunting sites are all out in the woods. Unfortunately, every year someone dies or becomes injured while enjoying the outdoors. Hikers get lost, people drown in lakes or fast moving rivers and someone is always getting hurt using forest roads or trails constructed without the usual safety standards people take for granted on roads or trails in town. An accident that seems to happen with some regularity occurs when motorcyclists fail to see cables stretched across private roads blocking entry. So who is responsible if someone is injured while using another’s land? The vast majority of injuries in the great outdoors occur due to ignorance, alcohol, firearms, lack of preparation or the usual dangerous situations nature likes to throw our way. Sometimes however, the injury or death has nothing to do with nature, but is caused by dangerous man made conditions existing on the land. An example is an old mine shaft opening, hidden by vegetation. Who is responsible if someone becomes injured in these situations? With a view towards encouraging landowners, both public and private, to open up land for recreation, Oregon and Washington have passed recreational immunity laws. These laws make a landowner immune from any civil suit brought by someone killed or injured while using their land. The immunity goes away if the landowner charges a fee for the use of the land. The law reasons that anyone operating a business and looking to lure customers onto their property for profit has a duty to keep the property reasonably safe for customers. The immunity aspect of the law was recently upheld in Oregon in Coleman v. Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. Coleman was injured while using state land and argued the immunity law didn’t apply because he paid a fee to camp. The court noted he did pay a fee to camp but pointed out his injury had nothing to do with the campsite. His suit wasn’t allowed to go forward. There are other exceptions to the recreational immunity law other than the fee rule. One involves people injured by a dangerous condition created by the landowner and intentionally hidden from view.