Trail immunity will not protect against being hit by a stray golf ball, but it may provide certain parties with absolute immunity from resulting litigation.

Issue By: Joshua K. Bart

Miguel Leyva, et al. v. Crockett & Company, Inc.

Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District (January 25, 2017)

Under Government Code § 831.4, “trail immunity,” a public entity or a grantor of a public easement to a public entity for recreational purposes is not liable for an injury caused by a condition of the trail. In Miguel Leyva, et al. v. Crockett & Company, Inc., the Court of Appeal affirmed a summary judgment entered in favor of defendant Crockett and Company, Inc. (“Crockett”), on the basis that section 831.4 barred the plaintiffs’ action. The central issue on appeal was whether Mr. Leyva’s injury – being struck in the eye by a stray golf ball – was caused by “a condition of the trail.”

In 2009, Crockett granted the County of San Diego two public easements for a public unpaved recreational hiking and equestrian trail, which runs parallel to the Bontia Golf Club, which is owned and operated by Crockett. A chain-link fence approximately six feet high and a line of eucalyptus trees spread eight to twelve feet apart separate the trail from the golf course in the area of the 13th hole.

In 2013, a golf ball struck Mr. Leyva in the eye while his wife and he walked along the adjacent public path. As a result, Mr. Leyva suffered an 80% loss of vision in his left eye and has a permanently sunken left orbital wall. The Leyvas sued Crockett for (1) negligence, (2) unsafe condition of property, (3) failure to warn, (4) intentional infliction of emotional distress, (5) negligent infliction of emotional distress, and (6) negligent infliction of emotional distress for bystanders.

Crockett moved for summary judgment arguing the action was barred under two different theories: trail immunity under § 831.4 and recreational use immunity under Civil Code § 846. The superior court granted summary judgment for Crockett based on the trail immunity. The Court of Appeal affirmed, holding that Crockett, as a grantor of a public easement to a public entity for a recreational purpose, falls within the scope of the trail immunity statute.

In its opinion, the Court of Appeal discussed the purpose of trail immunity, which is “to encourage public entities to open their property for public recreational use, because ‘the burden and expense of putting such property in a safe condition and the expense of defending claims for injuries would probably cause many public entities to close such areas to public use.’” Amberger-Warren v. City of Piedmont, 143 Cal.App.4th 1074, 1078 (2006) (Amberger-Warren). Citing extensively to the Amberger-Warren opinion, the Court of Appeal further explained that “to fulfill its purpose, trail immunity must extend to claims arising from the design of a trail, as well as its maintenance. … [L]ocation, no less than design, is an integral feature of a trail, and both must be immunized for the same reasons.” Id. at 1084-1085.

Although the Leyvas attempted to argue that the trail’s location next to the golf course was unrelated to Mr. Leyva’s injury, and that the golf course’s lack of safety barriers on the 13th hole is not a faulty design or a condition of the trail, the Court disagreed. As to the first part, Mr. Leyva would not have been struck by the golf ball if he had not been walking on a trail located next to the golf course. Likewise, the Court determined that it was immaterial whether the alleged negligence in failing to erect safety barriers along the boundary between the golf course and the trail occurred on the golf course or on the trail itself because the effect is the same.

As the Court explained, the proposed erection of a safety barrier on the boundary of the golf course is equivalent to the proposed installation of a handrail on a pathway in a public dog park where the plaintiff slipped and fell in Amberger-Warren. As the court noted in Amberger-Warren, “to require installation of handrails along every public trail where it might be reasonably prudent to do so would greatly undermine the immunity’s objective of encouraging access to recreational areas….” Id. Likewise, in Leyva, the Court explained that although public pathways along golf courses might be made safer by erecting high barriers between the golf courses and the trails, the burden and expense of doing so would chill private landowners, such as Crockett, from granting public easements to public entities along golf courses, resulting in closure of such areas to public use (and, from an aesthetic perspective, could mar the recreational experience for trail users).

For these reasons, the Court concluded that Crockett’s motion for summary judgment was properly granted on the basis that the Leyvas’ complaint was barred by trail immunity pursuant to section 831.4.

COMMENT

In Leyva v. Crockett & Co., the Court of Appeal affirmed the rule that a grantor of a public easement to a public entity is absolutely immune from liability under Government Code section 831.4 arising from injuries caused by conditions of the trail, including injuries arising from the trail’s location and design.

For a copy of the complete decision, see: Leyva v. Crockett

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