American Whitewater works to protect the public's rights (your rights) related to
recreational use of private and public lands which the nation’s rivers and streams run
through. Fortunately for whitewater paddlers and other recreational users, every state in the
nation has enacted laws that greatly limit both private and public landowner liability. These
laws are commonly referred to as recreational use immunity, and in general they bar lawsuits
against a landowner from individuals who are hurt while recreating on land the landowner has
opened to recreational access.
These laws in most cases were enacted to encourage private and public landowners to open up their
lands for recreational use free of charge and to assuage their fears of being sued in the event
of an accident on their land. This is especially important for whitewater boating because of some
landowners perception of risk in our sport and the fragile nature of many of our state’s
right to float laws. The effect is that private landowners and public land mangers are more
likely to welcome whitewater boating and other recreational activities if they are protected from
liability. Hence American Whitewater stresses personal responsibility for whitewater boating and
this notion is supported by these laws.
In Washington state one of these recreational use immunity laws was challenged when a cyclists
was injured on public land. In Lockner v. Pierce County, a Court of Appeal’s decision held
that Washington's recreational immunity statute was limited to land opened to the public
solely for recreational purposes. This would mean that any lands also opened up to timber sales,
hydropower production, scientific study or anything else in a wide range of multiple uses we find
on lands across Washington would be open to lawsuits stemming from accidents to recreational
users on those lands. This was a reversal of a lower courts decision to apply the recreational
use immunity statute and to grant a summary judgment in favor of the county, dismissing the
cyclists suit over her injuries.
American Whitewater found this decision especially troubling considering the amount of paddling
in Washington which occurs on lands leased for timber harvest and/or hydropower production, so we
joined with a coalition of recreation groups to enter a, “friend of the court” or
amicus brief, urging a reversal of this decision. We’re proud to report that in a unanimous
decision, the Washington Supreme Court in Lockner v. Pierce County reversed the Court of Appeals
ruling, affirming that Washington’s recreational use immunity law covers any lands opened
for free public use, regardless of if the land in question is used solely for recreational use or
if the land has been opened up to other uses.
We’d like to offer a huge thank you to the Pacifica Law Group for representing us and
preparing our amicus brief! Protecting Washington’s recreation use immunity laws is
important for paddlers across the nation. When these laws are weakened it creates a blueprint for
other state’s to weaken their laws. Cheers to a hard fought and important victory for the
recreational community in Washington and beyond!