One Year of Recreational Immunity

Armand Resto-Spotts

Oregon’s “recreational immunity” law has been a hot topic in the local government world this past year.  After a July 2023 Court of Appeals decision, which interpreted and applied the statutory protection in a new way, the Oregon legislature recently passed a bill temporarily re-framing recreational immunity under law.  Although the bill’s language mostly reflects our traditional understanding of recreational immunity, there are a few important changes to note, specifically in how local governments manage recreational trails and areas going forward.

Recreational Immunity

Generally, under Oregon law (ORS 105.668, .682, .688), public and private landowners who make available their land, without charge, for recreational use by the public are protected from liability for injuries that a person may receive while recreating on that land.

Importantly, this “recreational immunity” protects local governments from lawsuits that may arise from the public’s use of trails, recreational spaces, or other public easements.  ORS 105.688 offers the primary protection for local governments that make public spaces available for recreational uses.  ORS 105.668 affords additional protections – namely for any use of a trail or structures within a trail in a public easement or unimproved right of way – which automatically apply to cities with a population of 500,000 or more, and may be opted into by cities with lesser population.

Fields v. Newport Changes

Last year, the Oregon Court of Appeals issued an opinion in Fields v. Newport that changed immediately available relief for cities, counties, and owners of private property.  The plaintiff was injured while walking her dog on a City-improved trail system that provided access to a non-city recreational area, i.e. a state beach.  Although the court affirmed the notion of recreational immunity, it remanded the case to the trial court for the jury to determine the particular question of whether the plaintiff’s primary purpose for using the improved trail was “recreational” in nature.  If so, then state law confers immunity on the city.  However, if the plaintiff’s purpose was not recreational – for example, only using the trail to access the beach – then the City may not be able to avail itself of immunity under state law, because the trail was improved and the statute only confers immunity to unimproved trails leading to recreational areas.

Despite the unique facts presented in the case, the Court of Appeals’ decision did throw into question the application of recreational immunity for public and private landowners – namely, whether immunity applies when the recreational user was not primarily “recreating” as defined by statute, but instead using the trail or area to access another location for recreation.  It also raised a common and related question of whether immunity should extend to an “improved” trail system.

Ultimately, the court’s interpretation of “recreational immunity” exposed public and private landowners to new risks, as it allowed for public users to argue that they were not “recreating,” by definition, and therefore not prohibited from bringing a lawsuit in the event of injury.

Senate Bill 1576 – Changes to Recreational Immunity Law

Given these new risks, the Newport decision garnered severe criticism from local governments, land trusts, and other landowners of recreational spaces.  CIS Oregon also issued advice expressing deep concern of the court’s opinion, and recommended that local governments consider closing trails until the legislature implemented a fix.

In response, due in part to local governments’ collective efforts, the Oregon legislature passed Senate Bill 1576, which sought to bolster and affirm recreational immunity.  The bill modified Oregon’s recreational immunity law in three important ways.

First, the bill adds to the definition of “recreational purposes,” which now extends to “walking, running, and bicycling,” in addition to other recreational activities listed in ORS 105.672.  Ideally, these new activities would capture a scenario like the one in Newport, where a public user is “walking” to access another recreational area.  Walking should now be treated as being undertaken with a “recreational purpose,” which is properly subject to immunity under ORS 105.682-.688.

Second, the bill extended recreational immunity to “improved” right of way that is designed or maintained to provide access for recreational purposes, subject to certain limitations.  This captures trails and areas where a local government has improved the land; however, the purpose of the improvements and right of way must still be for recreational purposes.

Third, the bill replaced “city” with “local government,” as specifically defined under ORS 174.116.  That latter statute defines “local government” as inclusive of cities, counties, and local service districts.  Importantly, then, the bill expressly affords recreational immunity under ORS 105.668 to special districts.

Interestingly, the bill has a sunset clause of January 2, 2026, meaning that these statutory changes are only effective until that time.  After that date, the language under ORS 105.668, .672, and 688 will revert to its original form.  Accordingly, this temporary fix to recreational immunity provides time for the legislature – and interested groups – to figure out a long-term solution to the problem raised by Newport – hopefully in the upcoming longer 2025 legislative session.

Next Steps for Local Governments

As a service provider, through management and maintenance of parks, trails, and other recreational areas, local governments need to be cognizant of these changes to recreational immunity.  Here are a few important reminders.

Foremost, all local governments that are responsible for recreational areas or trails must still actually maintain those areas and trails in a prudent, reasonable manner.  Recreational immunity does not protect against gross negligence or reckless, intentional misconduct.  Local governments should not abdicate their responsibility to maintain recreational facilities.

Second, recreational immunity is not the only defense for a city or local government to reduce liability risks.  For example, cities still have discretionary immunity, particularly in situations where a governing body has approved or adopted specific plans, like a park maintenance plan.  It is recommended that cities and local governments have appropriate policy-makers make decisions about what improvements, if any, are needed for recreational areas.

Finally, local governments with a population less than 500,000 have the option to “opt in” to the additional protections of ORS 105.668, which affords broader immunity than that provided generally to landowners under ORS 105.688.  Specifically, ORS 105.668 provides immunity against negligence claims from the use of a trail or structures (i.e., improvements in a trail) in an unimproved right of way or public easement.  If a local government wants to opt-in to the law, it may do so by adoption of an “ordinance, resolution, rule, order, or other regulation.”  It is recommended that in doing so, the local government establishes the intent to opt in and expressly referencing ORS 105.668’s provisions under which the city wants to extend immunity.