Thursday, December 10, 2015

Understanding Pennsylvania’s Recreational Use and Water Act (RULWA) –Part I: The Duty of Care

Written by M. Sean High – Staff Attorney

In 1966, the Pennsylvania General Assembly enacted the Recreational Use of Land and Water Act (RULWA).  According to the statute (68 P.S. §§ 477-1 to 477-8), the purpose of RULWA “is to encourage owners of land to make land and water areas available to the public for recreational purposes by limiting their liability.” 

What does RULWA do?
RULWA provides a landowner with a potential immunity defense against claims that an individual was injured on a property as a result of the landowner’s negligence.  Landowner negligence occurs when a landowner fails to exercise the same level of care that a reasonably prudent and careful person would exercise under similar circumstances.  Different circumstances require landowners to exercise different levels of care towards the people that enter their property.  RULWA allows landowners the possibility of reducing the level of care owed whenever their land is made available to the public, free of charge, for recreational purposes.

What are the levels of care landowners owe those that enter their land?
When someone enters land without the consent of the landowner, that person is considered a trespasser.  Landowners normally owe this uninvited individual the low duty of care not to engage in any willful, wanton, or reckless conduct that could cause harm to the trespasser.  Nonetheless, if a landowner discovers or tolerates trespassers, the landowner then has an elevated duty to either warn the trespassers of known, hidden, man-made dangers or to make the premises safe.  For example, if a landowner discovers a foot path or litter near a section of a property used as a rifle range, the landowner may need to erect a sign warning of the potentially dangerous condition. 

Child trespassers require landowners to exercise a level of care greater than that owed to standard trespassers.  Known as the “Attractive Nuisance Doctrine,” children are considered unable to resist (or comprehend the danger of) things such as swimming pools, heavy machinery, or construction sites.  As a result, landowners have a duty to take reasonable precautions to protect child trespassers against the dangers of an attractive nuisance.  Often, this duty is fulfilled through erecting a secured fence around the danger. 

Generally, landowners that open their property to the public have a heightened duty of care towards the individuals that enter the property.  If a landowner invites persons onto the land, and the landowner receives no economic benefit, the invited persons are known as licensees.  A landowner has a duty of care to warn licensees of all known dangers on the property.  If the landowner invites persons onto the land (expressly or implied) for the economic benefit of the landowner, those invited persons are known as invitees. A landowner owes invitees a duty of protection and must inspect the land for dangerous conditions and warn the invitees of all known dangers on the property, and in certain situations, remedy the dangerous conditions.

RULWA provides qualifying landowners with an exception to the general duty of care owed towards those that enter their land.  If a qualifying property is made available to the public, free of charge, for recreational purposes, under RULWA, the landowner does not owe a duty to keep the property safe for the recreational users or to warn the recreational users of dangerous conditions.  In essence, RULWA only requires that landowners treat recreational land users with the same low duty of care that is owed to a trespasser (to not engage in willful, wanton, or reckless conduct that could cause harm to the recreational user). 

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