Overview of Negligence Liability Principles in Recreation

By Kozlowski, James C. | Parks & Recreation, June 1996 | Go to article overview

Overview of Negligence Liability Principles in Recreation


Kozlowski, James C., Parks & Recreation


For negligence liability, one need only

reasonably foresee

that an injury may result from

a dangerous

condition on the premises.

As illustrated by the case reports described herein, the law applies a "reasonableness standard" in determining whether negligence liability should be imposed on a particular individual's conduct when such conduct results in injury. Under this reasonableness standard, the risk reasonably to be perceived determines the legal duty to be obeyed. Perceived risk presupposes that the general scope of danger and risk of injury is foreseeable. Within this context, a foreseeable risk of injury is not a mere possibility, but a probability. Based upon one's own experience, or the common understanding of reasonable persons similarly situated, a general set of circumstances have caused injury before and are likely to cause future injuries, unless certain precautions are taken.

For negligence liability, one need only reasonably foresee that an injury may result from a dangerous condition on the premises. Accordingly, the particular manner in which the injury occurs need not be foreseen. On the other hand, plaintiff's injury must occur within the general scope of danger attributable to defendant's negligent conduct. In other words, defendant must actually know, or reasonable persons in similar circumstances would know, that such negligent conduct would result in this type of injury.

Negligence is conduct involving an unreasonable risk of harm. In determining whether a particular risk is unreasonable, courts will consider the social interests involved. In so doing, courts will weigh the risk created by particular conduct against the social utility of such conduct. Negligence will be imposed where the magnitude of the risk associated with defendant's actions outweighs the social utility of this particular conduct or activity.

Negligence liability also presupposes that defendant has superior knowledge of an unreasonable risk of harm which would not reasonably be known by the plaintiff prior to the injury. Conversely, there is generally no negligence liability where the plaintiff has relative risk knowledge which equals or exceeds defendant's, or the hazardous condition was readily observable by plaintiff through the reasonable use of his or her senses. In light of known or readily perceivable danger, the plaintiff has a legal duty to look out reasonably for his or her own safety and avoid such hazards. Accordingly, known or obvious dangers do not pose an unreasonable risk of harm necessary to impose liability for negligence.

In addition, negligence liability presupposes that the defendant had some degree of control over the unreasonable risk of harm which caused plaintiff's injury. As a result, there is generally no negligence liability for allegedly dangerous conditions which the defendant does not own, possess or control. For example, there is generally no negligence liability for allegedly dangerous conditions on adjacent property over which the landowner has exercised no control.

Foresee "An" Injury, Not "The" Injury?

In the case of Hueston v. Narragansett Tennis Club, Inc., 502 A2d 827 (R.I. 1986), plaintiff was injured while retrieving a tennis ball in defendant's facility. During the course of play, tennis balls would travel over a curtain and lodge in the wall between a horizontal girder and insulation. Plaintiff injured her finger when she jumped back to clear a lower girder and caught her ring in the girder where her ball had lodged.

In her complaint, plaintiff alleged that defendant was negligent in its maintenance and operation of the facility, specifically the exposed girders. Plaintiff testified that she had seen others, including defendant's tennis pros, climb the wall as she had done a number of times to retrieve tennis balls which became lodged in the girders. In response, defendant acknowledged that it owed plaintiff a legal duty of care to guard against usual occurrences. …

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