Recreational Use of Land and Water Act (RULWA)

Pennsylvania’s Recreational Use of Land and Water Act limits landowners’ liability for personal injury or property damage if they make their land available to the public for recreation. The purpose of the law is to encourage landowners to allow hikers, fishermen, and other recreational users onto their properties by limiting the traditional duty of care that landowners owe to entrants upon their land. So long as no entrance or use fee is charged, the Act provides that landowners do not have to keep their land safe for recreational users and have no duty to warn of dangerous conditions. This immunity from liability does not protect landowners who willfully or maliciously fail to warn of dangerous conditions.

RULWA does not prevent landowners from being sued; it provides them with an immunity defense to claims that their negligence caused the plaintiff’s injury. Negligence is the failure to exercise ordinary care such as a reasonably prudent and careful person under similar circumstances would exercise. The level of duty of care that landowners owe to entrants depends on the classification of the entrant. Landowners owe a high duty of care to people invited or permitted onto the land (i.e., “invitees” or “licensees”). But landowners owe trespassers only the duty not to deliberately or recklessly harm them. RULWA essentially reduces the duty of care landowners would otherwise owe to recreational users to the lower duty owed to trespassers.

In a much-publicized 2007 Lehigh County case, a landowner farmer who allowed hunting on his land was found partially liable for injuries caused to an off-site neighbor by the hunter’s bullet. It is unclear that the landowner’s attorney ever raised the RULWA defense. Addressing the then-common – but likely mistaken – impression that RULWA had failed to protect the landowner, the General Assembly in 2007 amended RULWA to expressly immunize landowners from off-site injury or damage caused by hunters on their land.

How Could RULWA be Strengthened?

Looking at how other states have modified or interpreted their recreational use statutes (most of which were originally based on the same model statute as Pennsylvania’s) sheds light on ways that Pennsylvania’s Act could be amended and strengthened to keep fear of litigation from chilling the public’s recreational opportunities. Potential changes to the Act would include:

  1. Expressly permitting access improvements for persons with disabilities. (The Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission supported this proposed amendment a number of years ago but the proposal did not gain sufficient legislative support.)
  2. Expressly permitting unpaved trails within the definition of “land.”
  3. Allowing landowners to collect certain types of remuneration without affecting immunity (e.g., voluntary monetary donations; in-kind contributions of venison); and
  4. Defining the Act’s use of the term “wilful [sic] or malicious;” and
  5. Instituting a cap on liability damages.

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