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Bike Trails for Transportation or Recreation - When Does Recreational Use Immunity Apply?

By Andrew S. Lane, Attorney, Cairncross & Hempelmann


I've been riding bicycles for fun and transportation for as long as I can remember. The bike trail I take to work on a Wednesday is sometimes the same one I enjoy on a sunny weekend ride with friends. It makes no difference to me if the bike trail is considered part of the transportation system or parks and recreation system. However, a recent Washington State Supreme Court decision makes it clear that the purpose of a bike trail can make a big difference when it comes to potential landowner liability when there's a bike accident.

In Camicia v. Howard S. Wright Construction Co. (Case No. 85583-8, Jan. 30, 2014), a divided Supreme Court made it clear that, for purposes of the Recreational Use Immunity statute (RCW 4.24.210), the mere fact that people ride bicycles on a bike trail does not mean that a landowner can claim immunity from liability. While beneficial to bicyclists and other trail users, the Court's narrow interpretation will no doubt furrow eyebrows for cities and counties relying on bike trails to satisfy both transportation and recreational needs.

Under Camicia, whether Recreational Use Immunity applies is a fact-specific analysis. The history of property acquisition, funding sources, and inclusion in planning documents are all relevant facts in determining whether a bike trail is open for recreational purposes. If so, then Recreational Use Immunity applies; if not, the city is not immune from the lawsuit.

The Lawsuit

Ms. Camicia was severely injured when she collided with a bollard while bicycling the I-90 bicycle trail located within the City of Mercer Island. She filed a negligence action against a construction company (who had equipment on the bike trail) and against the City of Mercer Island (who owned the bike trail property).

Landowners have a duty to protect public invitees from unreasonable risks of harm (for example, government has a duty to maintain roadways in a condition reasonably safe for ordinary travel). But that duty caused some landowners to forbid public access. Washington enacted the Recreational Use Immunity statute in 1967 to immunize landowners who allow the public to use certain lands "for the purpose of outdoor recreation" from liability for most injuries. See
RCW 4.24.200 and RCW 4.24.210.

The city argued that it was immune from liability pursuant to the Recreational Use Immunity statute, RCW 4.24.210. Ms. Camicia argued that immunity did not apply because the bike trail was a transportation facility, rather than a recreation facility.

The trial court agreed with the city and dismissed the case on summary judgment. But the Court of Appeals said "wait a minute!" It's not clear that this bike trail is for recreational purposes - there are disputed facts that first must be resolved before determining if Recreational Use Immunity applies. The Supreme Court agreed and sent the case back to the trial court to review and resolve the disputed facts. If the facts show that the bike trail is for transportation purposes, the Recreational Use Immunity statute will not protect the city from possible liability.

Part of the Transportation System or Open for Recreation? (Hint - "both" does not appear to be an available answer.)

To be immune under the Recreational Use Immunity statute, the landowner must show that the land (1) was open to the public, (2) for recreational purposes, and that (3) no fee was charged. The city did not charge a fee, so the only question for the court was whether the bike trail was open to the public for recreational purposes.

"Open" presumes that the land can be closed for recreational purposes. The court stated: "A landowner must have authority to close the land to the recreating public because extending recreational immunity to landowners who lack authority to close the land to the public 'would not further the purpose behind the act,' namely to encourage landowners to open land that would not otherwise be open."

Because of the history of the bike trail's ownership and the different ways the trail has been described by state and federal agencies, the court had a difficult time concluding that the trail was open for recreational purposes.


The Facts:
  • The Washington State Department of Transportation ("WSDOT") built the I-90 bike trail in the 1980s.
  • In 2002, WSDOT determined the bike trail was primarily for transportation under Federal Highway Administration ("FHA") funding guidelines. WSDOT stated that the trail was part of a multi-modal transportation facility, built with federal and state highway funds.
  • No funds designated for recreational facilities were used in building the bike trail.
  • determined that recreational uses would be minimal and fairly insignificant in comparison to the trail's transportation function.
  • The FHA concurred with WSDOT that the primary use is transportation.
  • WSDOT conveyed a portion of the bike trail to the city in 2000. The quitclaim deed stated: "the property is transferred for road/street purposes only, and no other use shall be made of said property without obtaining prior written approval of [WSDOT]."
  • The bike trail is included in the city's Comprehensive Park, Recreation, Open Space, Arts and Trails Plan.

The quitclaim deed conveying the land to the city limited the property's use to "road/street purposes only" and documents from WSDOT and the FHA that determined the trail is part of a multimodal transportation facility. These facts suggested that, as a transportation facility, the city could not close the trail. On the other hand, the bike trail was clearly part of the city's park and recreation planning documents.

In examining whether the trail was "for the purposes of outdoor recreation," the court took the position that immunity applies only if the public is allowed to use the land for the purposes of outdoor recreation. Again, it will be up to the trial court to review the facts and determine the purpose of the bike trail. Unfortunately, the court did not provide guidance on what happens if a bike trail is both part of a transportation system and a parks and recreation asset.

What Does this Mean for You?

Camicia does not provide a bright line rule. Instead, it requires a fact-specific inquiry to determine if the Recreational Use Immunity statute is available for a particular trail. Property records, planning documents, funding sources, and the ability to legally and practically open and close a trail may all come into play in the event of a legal challenge. Precisely how the courts will consider and weigh this information is not yet clear - we'll have to wait and see how Camicia is applied.

1A motion for summary judgment argues that (1) there are no disputed material facts and (2) the moving party is entitled to a judgment in their favor as a matter of law. For purposes of considering the summary judgment motion, the court views the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. In this case, the Supreme Court viewed the facts most favorable to Ms. Camicia and concluded that a trial court could find that the trail was a transportation facility and not a recreational facility. The trial court's job on remand is to ascertain the facts and then apply the Supreme Court's analysis to the facts to reach a decision.

2 The fact that some people bicycle this trail for recreational purposes does not mean the trail was "open to the public for recreational purposes." The focus is on the landowner's intent, not the user's intent. So, it makes no difference whether Ms. Camicia was riding for recreation or general transportation.

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About Andy Lane

Andy Lane writes for MRSC as a guest author.

Andy Lane focuses on land use and environmental law with Cairncross & Hempelmann. He advises municipalities, landowners, and developers regarding long-range planning issues, permitting, water rights, and compliance with environmental laws. Andy takes a practical approach to the practice of law, recognizing that land use disputes can frequently be resolved by up-front planning and creative thinking rather than prolonged litigation. In addition to helping private and municipal clients resolve legal disputes, Andy also partners with planners and engineers to provide consulting services to municipalities in land use and Growth Management Act ("GMA") matters.

The views expressed in guest author columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.