The Utah Supreme Court dealt a blow to landowners who let the public on their land - including cities and ski resorts - by ruling that they are liable for anyone injured by their own reckless driving.
The ruling means that cities can now be liable if a recklessly driven maintenance truck, large lawn mower or other equipment injures someone in a city park or cemetery.Ski resort owners and even farmers who let hunters onto their land have the same liability. If the owner or his employee recklessly injures someone on their own land, they pay.
Salt Lake City may ask the Legislature to change the law to rid the city of this new liability, said Randall Edwards, attorney for Salt Lake City.
The 5-0 ruling, released Wednesday, marks the first time a Utah court has said a landowner faces additional liability if he opens his land to the public. The Limitation of Landowner Liability-Public Recreation Act assures landowners that they face no additional liability for opening their land, Edwards said.
This ruling runs contrary to the law's intent, Edwards said. "If the Legislature says we are going to give you immunity if you open your land, they mean they won't give you any liability you didn't have before. Otherwise, what's the incentive for opening your land?"
The ruling could affect more than 100 sites in the city, including the Salt Lake City Cemetery, said Rick Graham, deputy director of public services.
Some areas, like the cemetery and Liberty Park, are designated maintenance sites, he said. People report to work there. Maintenance trucks and other equipment drive in and out daily.
"But every park in the city at one time or another will have maintenance personnel working in the park," Graham said.
The lawyers and the politicians differ on how the city should handle this new liability. The city will consider closing some parks when maintenance trucks are there, Edwards said.
Closing parks is not an option, said Thom Dillon, spokesman for Mayor Deedee Corradini. "We won't even shut them down for short periods of time. Logistically, that just wouldn't be possible." Instead, the city will remind employees to be safe and conscientious, he said.
Bicyclist Stephanie Young collided with a Salt Lake City maintenance truck May 12, 1989, in City Creek Canyon. Young was left with a broken back and head injuries, said Robert Hart, her attorney. Young sued the city, saying that city employee Thomas Maudlin was driving too fast.
A state judge dismissed the suit, ruling that the Landowner Liability Act protected the city from any liability.
The Utah Supreme Court has reversed that ruling and now Young's case will go to trial. Hart refused to say how much money Young wants from the city.
The court relied on a similar Iowa decision about a recklessly driven tractor in concluding that the act doesn't apply to the owner's driving.
The court's ruling clearly limits a landowner's immunity to the land itself, which is what the Legislature intended, Hart said. "The law has to do with the land and not the behavior of owners or their employees. If the property itself is dangerous, people are there at their own risk. But negligent behavior by an owner or his employee won't be condoned," Hart said.