Dual Use of Trail for Recreational and Non-Recreational Purposes Does Not Preclude Government Code Trail Immunity
by Sean D. De Burgh on January 29, 2016
In a favorable ruling for public agencies, the Sixth Appellate District recently held that the Regents of the University of California were not liable for the death of a University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) student who was killed along the Great Meadow Parkway in a fatal bicycle accident as he was returning home from an evening class. (Burgueno v. The Regents of the University of California.) The student’s family alleged dangerous condition of public property and wrongful death, asserting that the bikeway was unsafe in light of its downhill curve, sight limitations, lack of runoff areas, lack of adequate signage, lack of appropriate roadway markings, and lack of physical barriers to prevent nighttime use of the bikeway.
The Regents moved for summary judgment arguing that they were immune from liability under Government Code 831.4, which provides immunity to public entities that provide trails used for recreational purposes. The purpose of Government Code 831.4 is to encourage public agencies to open their property for public recreational use, without imposing the burden and expense of ensuring such property is in safe condition and the expense of defending claims for injuries. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the Regents.
The bikeway trail at issue in this case was primarily used for those traveling to and from UCSC, and it is noteworthy that the student in this case was not using the Great Meadow Parkway for recreational purposes at the time the accident occurred. In their further effort to characterize this particular bikeway trail as non-recreational, the student’s family also made the point that use of the trail helps produce tuition for the University. Notwithstanding these facts, the evidence confirmed and the student’s family were forced to acknowledge that the trail was occasionally used for recreational purposes. Thus, the issue presented by the case was whether this type of mixed-use trail was still entitled to Government Code 831.4 immunity.
In analyzing the issue presented, the Court of Appeal reviewed several cases where section 831.4 trail immunity was applied in the context of a bicycle accident on a public trail or path (Armenio v. County of San Mateo (1994) 28 Cal.App.4th 413, 417; Carroll v. County of Los Angeles (1997) 60 Cal.App.4th 606, 607, 609-610; Farnham v. City of Los Angeles (1999) 68 Cal.App.4th 1097, 1099, 1103; Prokop v. City of Los Angeles (2007) 150 Cal.App.4th 1332, 1342). In each of the above-cited cases, application of Government Code 831.4 was deemed proper.
The Court of Appeal held that this type of mixed use trail was entitled to immunity under Government Code 831.4 and that therefore summary judgment in favor of the Regent was proper. The decision suggests that so long as public agencies ensure that these types of trails have some type of anticipated recreational use then Government Code 831.4 immunity will apply.