Does Wisconsin’s Recreational Immunity Statute protect you from liability?

As the snow finally melts and spring arrives, our focus will be on enjoying the great outdoors in Central Wisconsin. Recreational activities that we enjoy may include hiking, biking, fishing, hunting, horseback riding, camping, picnicking, birdwatching and riding ATVs. While we enjoy these recreational activities, are property owners liable for injuries sustained by people engaged in recreational activities on the owner’s property?

Wisconsin Statute § 895.52 is a recreational immunity statute which generally limits the liability of property owners when a person is injured while engaging in a recreational activity on their property. The property owners generally have no duty to: (1) keep the property safe for recreational activities; (2) inspect the property; or (3) give warning of an unsafe condition, use or activity on the property.

The statute defines “owner” of property in very broad terms and includes private property owners, governmental bodies, and nonprofit organizations that own, lease or occupy property. The statute protects property owners from liability as a result of injuries sustained by people engaging in approximately two dozen recreational activities, including those referenced above and others, such as rock climbing, hang gliding, cutting or removing wood, exploring caves, outdoor sports, water sports, and many winter sports activities.

As with many laws, there are exceptions to this statute. The owners of private property lose the immunity afforded to them if the private property owner collects a total of at least $2,000 per year in payment or fees for the use of the owner’s property in the year in which the death or injury occurs. For example, if you lease land for hunting and receive as rent a total of at least $2,000 in a particular year, you will not be afforded immunity from injuries sustained on your property. Additionally, property owners who use their property for organized sports also lose the protection under the statute.

In addition, a private property owner loses immunity if the death or injury occurs on platted land, residential property, or property within 300 feet of a building or structure on land that is classified as commercial or manufacturing, and if the injured person was a “social guest” who was expressly and individually invited by the property owner for the specific occasion when the injury occurred.

Wisconsin courts have interpreted various aspects of the recreational immunity statute on many occasions and have held that even spectators who attend a recreational activity are engaging in a recreational activity under the statute, such that the property owner is immune from liability if a spectator is injured. The Wisconsin Court of Appeals has recently extended the recreational immunity statute to deny recovery to those injured who may be on the property merely “supervising” those who are engaged in a recreational activity.

The recreational immunity statute provides very broad protection to property owners. However, the statutory exceptions and the case law from Wisconsin courts can make it a very complex and fact-intensive inquiry. If in a certain situation the property owner does not receive the protection of the immunity statute, it must be kept in mind that the property owner is not automatically liable for the injuries sustained by anyone on the premises. The injured party must establish that the property owner breached a legal duty to the injured party. The duty owed by the property owner requires a factual and legal analysis.

Property owners may attempt to limit their exposure to liability by having users of their property sign releases and waivers of liability. However, Wisconsin courts are reluctant to enforce these unless they satisfy very strict requirements. A property owner may also attempt to limit personal financial liability for injuries by purchasing adequate liability insurance, including an umbrella insurance policy.

Because of the complexities involved, it is recommended that you contact a lawyer to discuss your specific circumstances to assess your risk for liability for any injuries that may occur on your property.