Spang v. James D. Morrissey, Inc.

A-1319-98T5 and A-1681-98T5 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2000) (Unpublished)
  • Opinion Date: March 3, 2000

LANDOWNER LIABILITY—For the purposes of protection under the Landowner’s Liability Act, the touchstones of evaluating whether a property qualifies as rural are the size and nature of the property and the quality of the hazard.

Two individuals were injured while operating motorcycle dirt bikes on a tract of land measuring approximately 480 acres in area. The property itself was located in four separate municipalities. Behind it were some residences. It was also bordered by several commercial establishments and government facilities. An employee of the property owner admitted that motorcycles and other vehicles had been operated on the property for nearly twenty years and that there were over twenty trails that lead onto the property from surrounding roads. The injured bikers complained that the property owner negligently maintained the premises by allowing a dangerous condition to exist and failing to provide adequate warnings of it, which they claimed was a proximate cause of the injuries. Each biker claimed that his vision was obstructed by a large dirt mound located at the intersection of two dirt roads. They admitted that they had seen the mounds, knew that they were created as part of the mining operation, and were aware that they would not be able to see around them while operating their dirt bikes. They also admitted that they were on the premises for recreational purposes and that the landowner had never invited them onto the premises nor granted them permission to be on the property. No compensation was paid to the landowner for the use of the property. The landowner argued that it was immune under the terms of the of the Landowner’s Liability Act, which provides that an owner of land, whether or not posted and whether or not improved or used as part of a commercial enterprise, owes no duty to keep the premises safe for entry or use by others for sport and recreational activities or to give warning of any hazardous condition of the land. The Act defines sport and recreational activities to include operating or riding dirt bikes. Despite case law cited by the injured bikers, the Court pointed out that subsequent amendments to the Act (in 1991) specifically aimed to provide immunity for premises “whether or not improved or maintained in a natural condition, or used as part of a commercial enterprise.” This meant that the Act applies to improvements on rural or semi-rural land. The touchstones of evaluating whether a property is rural or semi-rural are “the size and nature of the property, as well as the quality of the hazard.” The amendments, however, were “clearly designed to focus the inquiry on the dominant character of the land and to account for the evolving types of activities considered recreational pursuits.” Here, the land at issue was a “commercial sand pit located on a 480-acre tract. Although it [was] adjacent to some residential homes, the predominant nature of the property [was] distinctly rural, consisting of wide expanses of open land that [had] not been developed for recreational use.” Consequently, the Court held that the landowner was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.