Many Mainers have enjoyed an excellent season of snowmobiling, skiing, snowshoeing and several other outdoor winter activities this season. As we turn the corner into spring, it is important to keep safety in mind. The spring thaw is anxiously anticipated but also presents potentially dangerous conditions including melting ice, swollen rivers and deepening mud.
Maine has a longstanding history of encouraging recreational use of both public and private land. For this reason, we have the recreational use statute, or “landowner liability” law, in place to protect private landowners by severely limiting their responsibility for injuries to people who engage in recreational or harvesting activities on their land.
It is interesting to note that under this statute, private landowners are not required to keep their land safe for use by others; they aren’t even required to give warning of potential hazards that may exist on their land.
This information should be of particular interest to Mainers and tourists who enjoy cold outdoor recreational activities, such as snowmobiling, skiing and ice fishing, and warmer weather activities, such as sightseeing, hiking, camping, hunting, boating, biking and swimming. Virtually all outdoor activities are covered by this statute, including hang gliding.
People should be extra cautious and keep an eye out for potential hazards that may not be marked such as thin or melting ice, fallen trees and naturally hidden obstacles. This statute applies regardless of whether someone has given permission for recreational use of their land. As a result, it is very difficult to bring a successful lawsuit against landowners if you are injured on their land.
The law also provides added protection to landowners, allowing them to collect compensation for legal fees and court costs, if the person who brought the lawsuit loses.
There are certain exceptions where landowners may be found liable for injuries on their land, but they are very limited. One instance where a landowner could be held liable is if he or she willfully or maliciously failed to warn of a dangerous condition. Another exception to this law applies to landowners who use their land primarily for commercial recreational activities and charge an admission fee to visitors.
This law is designed to encourage landowners to open their land to others and allow them to freely enjoy the great outdoors. Without this protection, it is unlikely that so many private landowners would allow public access to their land, which could be a great hindrance to many of Maine’s favorite pastimes and tourist attractions. As a state that relies heavily on tourism for economic development, we certainly want to keep our resources open and accessible. Anyone who enjoys the Maine outdoors in any season should strongly support this law and use caution to ensure their own safety.
Caleb Gannon is an attorney at Lipman & Katz in Augusta where he works in litigation involving personal injury and land use. He serves on the Yarmouth Planning Board.