The relentless parade of defendants seeking to take advantage of the Massachusetts Recreational Use Statute, G.L. c.21 s.17C (RUS), hit another roadblock last week, as the Supreme Judicial Court held in Wilkins v. Haverhill that the negligence claim of a parent who was injured at a public school while attending a parent-teacher conference was not barred by the immunity statute.
Mrs. Wilkins brought suit against the City of Haverhill after she slipped on an icy walkway outside the school. The school district moved for summary judgment, claiming immunity from liability for ordinary negligence under the RUS on the grounds that Mrs. Wilkins had entered the school building free of charge as a member of the public engaged in an educational activity. The Superior Court agreed with the City, and the plaintiff appealed.
The SJC noted that the school was open only to parents who were there to attend scheduled conferences, and not to the general public. In fact, the Court noted, the city admitted that the building was closed to other members of the public. Relying on the language of the RUS, along with a dictionary definition or two, the Court held that, in order to take advantage of the protection of the RUS, a landowner must make the property available to the entire public, and not just a discrete group. While the landowner may limit the use of the property, it may not exclude any portion of the public.
Interestingly, the Court seemed to suggest that the mother’s attendance at the conference was not truly for her own “educational” purpose, as required by the statute. While there was some benefit to the mother, and her attendance was indirectly related to the education of her child, the SJC did not feel that this use was the type of “educational” use contemplated by the RUS. The Court also noted that the stated purpose of the RUS–to encourage landowners to make private land available for public use–would not be furthered by a grant of immunity in this case, as there is ample public policy and statutory basis to “encourage” schools to involve parents in their children’s education.
While the language of the Wilkins decision still leave room for plenty of mischief in the application of the RUS, it does stand for the important point that, in order to entitle a landowner to immunity, the land must be open to all members of the public. The theoretical right of the public–or even the right of a significant number of its members–to access a public building is not sufficient. Further, the Court seems to be looking behind the precise language of the RUS to the legislative purpose–an analysis that has been missing from some other recent RUS decisions.