Appellate Court Upholds Trail Immunity and Protects Pasadena from Liability
Court Clarified Availability of Trail Immunity Depends on the Recreational Nature of the Trail Itself
Trail immunity has been examined by the appellate courts numerous times over the past 18 months, most recently in Arvizu v. City of Pasadena, where the plaintiff entered a public park after hours and injured himself when he slid down a trail and fell over a retaining wall. Granting the City’s motion for summary judgment, the trial court held that trail immunity applied — which the Second District Court of Appeal recently affirmed.
Trail immunity protects public entities from liability when would-be plaintiffs suffer injuries while using public property for recreational purposes. In theory, trail immunity seems like a straightforward defense – if a person becomes injured while using public property for recreational purposes, the public entity should be immune. In practice, however, it is not always clear when trail immunity applies and when it does not.
In Arvizu, the court rejected the plaintiff’s contention that the trail and the retaining wall constituted a dangerous condition, particularly if used at night. While the court acknowledged that trail immunity deprives would-be plaintiffs of recovery, it further stated that it would not second-guess the Legislature’s determination that such immunity should be made available to public entities. The court discussed at length the policy consideration behind the immunity: encouraging public entities to keep trails and parkland open and available for public use without the specter of potential litigation from injuries suffered.
Relying on precedent, the court clarified that the availability of trail immunity depends on the recreational nature of the trail itself, and not how a would-be plaintiff actually uses the trail. In doing so, the court discussed other trail immunity cases, including Leyva v. Crockett & Co., Inc. and Garcia v. American Golf Corp., both from early 2017. Here, the Arvizu court quickly distinguished Garcia, stating that unlike the situation in Garcia, the City trail did not involve a golf course or an asset of the City that generated revenue.
Ultimately, the court reasoned that the hill and retaining wall in Pasadena over which the plaintiff fell was a condition arising from the location and design of the trail, and concluded that the City was immune from liability related to the location and design of the trail, including any alleged failure to post warnings or install guardrails. The court also highlighted the fact that the plaintiff had to cross the trail to get to the retaining wall, and would not have suffered any injury if he had not crossed over the trail.
The decision in Arvizu appears to be aligned with the bulk of the trail immunity cases, further underscoring practitioners’ concerns that Garcia may be an outlier given its particular factual underpinning. However, the California Supreme Court denied review and depublication of Garcia. Accordingly, public trails will retain protection under the law—so long as the claim is not related to a condition of the land independent of a trail or a revenue-generating public enterprise.
If you have any questions about this decision or how it may impact your agency, please contact one of the authors of this Legal Alert listed to the right in the firm’s Municipal Law practice group, or your BB&K attorney.
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