Oregon lawmakers consider redefining ‘recreation’ to keep public trails open
Lawmakers are considering revamping a law meant to protect local governments from getting sued by people using public trails
Some trails near Waldport have been closed to the public as local leaders wait for the state to revamp a recreational liability law meant to spare local governments from lawsuits when someone is hurt using paths maintained by cities and counties. (Michelle Klampe/Oregon State University)
The public’s ability to access some trails and pathways maintained by local governments could come down to how “recreation” is redefined in a state law meant to protect local governments from lawsuits.
On Monday, members of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary considered Senate Bill SB 1576-3, which would expand the definition of recreation covered under the state’s “recreational immunity” law to include walking, running and bicycling. The proposal would protect local governments from lawsuits, like a recent one against Newport, over injuries on public and private walkways to recreational areas and the areas themselves. It would also include protection from lawsuits over paths, bridges and walkways used to reach maintained trails and land for recreational purposes.
Several government officials, coastal tourism and business associations and conservation groups testified during the hearing and more than 130 filed written testimony, almost all in favor of the proposal. They said without a fix, access to recreational areas could be closed.
“I want to see a fix to Oregon’s recreational immunity law because having access to trails, beaches and forests is part of what makes us Oregonians,” said Dan Haag, director of trails, recreation for the Tillamook Coast Visitors Association.
State Rep. David Gomberg, D-Otis, who represents the Newport area, also testified for the bill, saying that lawmakers needed to quickly update the law until a more permanent solution could be found during the longer session in 2025. Gomberg said the downstream effects would be far reaching in his community if they waited.
“At the end of the day, this affects not only the recreational opportunities of my constituents and residents but also visitors, and therefore our larger tourism economy,” he said.
The Senate committee will vote on the proposal Wednesday.
The bill stems from a 2019 lawsuit brought against the city of Newport by Nicole Fields, a woman who broke her leg walking on a wet bridge connecting a coastal trail to Agate Beach. She sued Newport for $345,000, claiming the bridge was made with materials that can become slippery but not appear slippery, and that there were no anti-slip features added to the surface of the bridge, nor proper signs warning that the bridge could become slippery, according to court documents.
The 50-year old recreational immunity law had typically protected local governments from such suits, which was Newport’s defense when the case moved through the courts, eventually landing at the Oregon Court of Appeals in July. Fields, the Newport lawyers contended, fell while recreating and the city was immune under the law.
But the judge sided with Fields, who said walking is not expressly included in protected recreational activities under the law, and that she was not doing any of the recreational activities listed under the law, but was using the bridge to get to the beach. The case was sent back to Lincoln County and will likely be heard by a jury. The recreational immunity law currently defines recreational purposes as more than a dozen activities, but does not explicitly include “walking, running or bicycling,” nor is it clear about the liability of local governments for unimproved or maintained paths and walkways to trails.
The July decision from the Appeals Court put coastal communities especially on high alert, and several beach trails were closed in Waldport, Oceanside and the Port of Garibaldi following the decision, according to reporting in the Statesman Journal.
The largest insurance carrier for Oregon Coast cities and counties, called CIS Oregon, told clients the decision amounted to the end of recreational immunity and recommended some consider closing trails.
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