Friday, December 11, 2015

Understanding Pennsylvania’s Recreational Use and Water Act (RULWA) –Part II: Meeting the Requirements

Written by M. Sean High – Staff Attorney

Under the Pennsylvania Recreational Use and Water Act (RULWA) (68 P.S. §§ 477-1 to 477-8), in some situations, landowners are provided with an immunity defense against negligence.  In order to receive the benefits of RULWA, however, certain requirements must be met.

Who is entitled to RULWA protection?
RULWA applies to landowners that allow the public access to their (qualifying) land, free of charge, for recreational use.  Under RULWA, the owner of the land means anyone who is “the possessor of a fee interest, a tenant, lessee, occupant or person in control of the premises.” If the owner of an easement exercises sufficient control over the easement (such as a utility company actively maintaining service roads), the easement owner is entitled to invoke RULWA as an immunity defense. 

What types of land qualify under RULWA?
Under RULWA, the land that qualifies for protection includes, “land, roads, water, watercourses, private ways and buildings, structures and machinery or equipment when attached to the realty.” When determining what land qualifies under this definition, courts look at the following factors: “nature of area in question; type of recreation offered in area; extent of areas development; and character of areas development.

While the statute does not make a distinction between improved and unimproved lands, the Pennsylvanian courts have consistently ruled that improved lands (those altered from their original state) do not qualify for RULWA protection. For example, a lacrosse field used for athletic competition and a playground were not entitled to RULWA protection because in all three instances, the land in question had been improved.  Conversely, the courts have determined that an undeveloped city field used for flag football and an earthen embankment near a public pavilion were largely unimproved and entitled to RULWA protection.

What is considered recreational use under RULWA?
According to RULWA, a recreational purpose “includes, but is not limited to:  hunting, fishing, swimming, boating, recreational noncommercial aircraft operations or recreational noncommercial ultralight operations on private airstrips, camping, picnicking, hiking, pleasure driving, nature study, water skiing, water sports, cave exploration and viewing or enjoying historical, archeological, scenic, or scientific sites.”

Because the list was not designed to be exhaustive, but serves as a guide, the courts are often called upon to determine whether certain activities not on the list qualify as recreational purpose.  Accordingly, courts have found that baseball, softball, bicycling, “four-wheeling,” and bingo are all recreational purposes within the intended meaning of RULWA.    

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