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Landowners Not Entitled to Immunity Under Recreational Use Statute

October 21, 2020 By Mark A. Kohl

Landowners are not entitled to immunity under the Recreational Use statute for injuries sustained by their social guests.

Generally, a landowner owes a duty of care to invitees and guests. However, Sections 5-1101 through 5-1109 of the Natural Resources Article carve out an exception – where a landowner makes his property available to the public for recreational or educational use, the landowner is only liable for “Willful or wanton misconduct or entrapment” (the duty owed to bare licensees or trespassers).

The statute itself, however, does not clarify whether the property must be opened to the general public or whether a landlord only owes the lowest duty to those he specifically invites onto his property for recreational gatherings.

In Martinez v. Ross, the Court of Special Appeals held that the Recreational Use Statute provides no shield to instances where a landlord’s negligence injures his invited guest. 245 Md. App. 581 (April 29, 2020). In Martinez, an excavating contractor constructed an ATV course on his commercial property, which was not open to the public generally. The contractor held an event for about ninety (90) invited guests (including the plaintiff), allowing the guests to ride ATVs on the course. The plaintiff suffered a spinal fracture (allegedly because the course was negligently designed).

The trial court granted summary judgment based on the Recreational Use statute. The Court of Special Appeals later reversed, noting that the legislative purpose of the statute was to convince private land owners to make their property available for recreational or educational use to the public (the extension of qualified immunity was interpreted as a quid pro quo). The Court noted that the purpose of the statute would be frustrated if immunity was granted in situations where the property was opened only to social guests rather than the general public.

In addition to drawing attention to a qualified immunity that is not widely-known, the Court’s decision emphasizes that the extent to which the property was opened is a key factor in assessing whether the immunity will apply.