Recreational immunity bill for public lands passes legislature

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The Legislature approved a bill Wednesday that gives public employees and volunteers immunity from civil liability when individuals use public land for free recreation.

State law shields public landowners such as community colleges and school districts from legal liability claims over the free use of public lands, but an Oregon Supreme Court decision in Johnson v. Gibson last year allowed employees of public landowners to be sued. This possibility of legal actions against employees raised concerns among facility and risk managers for cities, counties, schools and community colleges. Because employers insure their workers against legal claims, they would still be held liable indirectly for legal actions against their employees. Volunteers could also be targeted in a lawsuit.

The concern was that there could be “a sharp increase in lawsuits filed against PACE member employees who operate, maintain or repair recreational areas,” according to PACE staff.

PACE and other statewide public and private entities lobbied hard in favor of Senate Bill 327, asking the Legislature to expand the definition of “owner” to include employees, volunteers and agents. The passage of this bill extends the recreational immunity shield to employees, agents, volunteers and others when acting on behalf of a public landowner.

This provides much relief for schools and community colleges and allows them to keep their campuses and playgrounds open so the public can continue to use them.

"The passage of this bill restores the public's ability to enjoy the natural beauty of our great state," said Geoff Sinclair, PACE’s director of claims services.

PACE members are still encouraged to help reduce liability by making overdue repairs, establishing regular maintenance schedules, and installing cautionary signs at playgrounds and other recreational facilities.