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When is a California landowner liable for personal injuries related to recreational activities?

Under California’s premises liability laws, California property owners owe a duty to keep their premises safe and to warn visitors of hazards in most cases.[1] However, when people are permitted to enter the land to participate in a recreational activity, the landowners are immune from liability. The immunity from liability does not apply in cases in which the landowners expressly invite others to enter their land, however. InHoffman v. Young, Cal. Ct. App. Case No. B292539m the appeals court considered whether an invitation by a property owner’s son to a friend to come to his parents’ home was enough to overcome his parents’ liability after his friend was injured.[2]

Factual and procedural background

Mikayla Hoffman was invited by her 18-year-old friend, Gunner Young, to Gunner’s parents’ home. At the time, Gunner still lived with his parents, and Mikayla was a minor. Young drove to Hoffman’s house and loaded her motorcycle in his truck for her. He then drove her to his home. On some of his parents’ land next to his home, the Youngs had built a motocross track. Young and Hoffman road their motorcycles on the track together. Young collided with Hoffman’s motorcycle, causing her to suffer serious injuries. Hoffman’s parents filed a lawsuit against Young and his parents.

The Hoffmans argued that the Youngs had negligently constructed the motocross track and that the accident was partially caused by the poor design. The case went to trial before a jury. The Youngs argued that they were immune from liability under the recreational use defense in Cal. Civ. Code § 846.[3] Under that statute, landowners are not liable for injuries caused to people who enter their land for recreational uses.

At trial, the Hoffmans’ attorney asked the court to give a jury instruction that an exception applied to the recreational purpose defense. Under this exception, landowners who expressly invite people onto their property are not immune from liability. The court refused to give the instruction and instead found that since Gunner Young was not the landowner and was instead the landowner’s son, the exception did not apply. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the Youngs, finding that they were not liable for Mikayla Hoffman’s accident and injuries. The Hoffmans filed an appeal.

Issue: Whether the Youngs were immune from liability under the recreational purpose defense?

On appeal, the Hoffmans argued that the court erred in failing to provide the jury instruction about the exception to the recreational use defense. They argued that since Gunner Young still lived at home with his parents, his express invitation of Mikayla Hoffman to ride motorcycles on his family’s motocross track was enough to meet the exception. The Youngs argued that since they were the actual landowners instead of Gunner, Gunner’s express invitation of Mikayla to ride motorcycles with him on their property was not enough to overcome the recreational use defense.

Rule: Landowners are immune from liability when people enter their land for recreational purposes. However, a landowner is not immune when he or she expressly invites a person to his or her land.

Under Cal. Civ. Code § 846, a landowner is immune from liability when a visitor is permitted to enter land for recreational purposes and is injured while engaged in recreational activities. Recreational activities under the statute include many different things, including vehicular riding of all types. There is an exception to the immunity provided to landowners when entrants onto their land are injured while engaging in recreational activities. Under the statute, landowners are not immune when they expressly invite people to enter their land. Instead, the landowners have a duty to warn people who they expressly invite of dangers and hazards that exist on their property and to keep their premises safe for the use of the invited people.

Analysis

While landowners generally owe a duty of care to their invited guests to keep their premises reasonably safe and to warn them of existing dangers, an exception applies when someone is allowed to enter for recreation but is not expressly invited. One of the types of recreational uses for which the immunity provision applies is being permitted to enter the land to ride motorcycles. When someone is allowed to enter to ride motorcycles, the landowner will not be liable if the person is injured in a motorcycle accident on his or her land.[4] However, if the landowner expressly invited the person to enter the land for any purpose, the landowner will not be immune from liability.

The court began by analyzing the court’s decision in Calhoon v. Lewis, 81 Cal.App.4th 108 (2000), a case that was cited by the Hoffmans to support their argument that Young’s invitation of Hoffman was tantamount to an express invitation by the landowners.[5] In that case, the defendants’ son invited his friend to come over to their house. The friend went there and was waiting for the defendants’ son to get home. While waiting, he rode his skateboard on their driveway and fell, injuring himself. The defendants argued that they were immune from liability under the recreational use doctrine. The trial court found that the case was barred by the immunity theory. However, the Court of Appeals reversed that decision, holding that the son’s invitation was sufficient to overcome the immunity defense.

The court next looked at the decision in Johnson v. Unocal Corp., 21 Cal.App.4th 310 (1993), a case that was cited by the Youngs.[6] In that case, the plaintiff was employed by a company that was given permission to use property owned by Unocal Corporation to hold a picnic. During the picnic, the plaintiff leaned against a fence while he was playing horseshoes. The fence collapsed, causing him to fall down and suffer injuries. The trial court found that Unocal was immune from liability under the recreational use doctrine and that the exception based on an express invitation did not extend to the plaintiff as someone who attended the picnic. The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s decision. By contrast, in the Hoffman case, the court of appeals distinguished the Unocal decision because Hoffman was expressly invited by the defendants’ son to the property where he lived.

The court then considered whether an express invitation that is extended by a landowner’s child is tantamount to an invitation extended by the landowner. The court reasoned that parents impliedly permit their children to invite their friends to their homes, making the children agents of their parents when they invite people over. The court noted that while the statute says the exception applies when the landowner extends an invitation to someone else, it does not preclude a landowner from delegating the authority to a child.

The court then considered whether the trial court’s erroneous jury instruction about the recreational use immunity and its exception prejudiced Hoffman. The court found that the jury instruction was prejudicial to Hoffman’s case.

Conclusion

The appeals court reversed the trial court on the negligence causes of action. The case was sent back to the lower court for further proceedings. The Hoffmans were awarded their costs on appeal.

Talk to an experienced Los Angeles personal injury attorney

If you have been injured while visiting someone else’s home, you may be entitled to recover damages. An experienced Los Angeles personal injury attorney at the Steven M. Sweat Personal Injury Lawyers can review what happened and explain whether your claim has legal merits. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation by calling us at 866.966.5240.

Sources

[1] https://www.victimslawyer.com/premises-liability.html

[2] https://law.justia.com/cases/california/court-of-appeal/2020/b292539.html?utm_source=summary-newsletters&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=2020-11-06-personal-injury-51eddef864&utm_content=text-case-title-3

[3] https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/civil-code/civ-sect-846.html

[4] https://www.victimslawyer.com/motorcycle-accidents.html

[5] https://caselaw.findlaw.com/ca-court-of-appeal/1299713.html

[6] https://caselaw.findlaw.com/ca-court-of-appeal/1760644.html

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