On October 9, 2013, the Appellate Division of the Superior Court determined that owners of the Green Knoll Golf Course in Bridgewater, New Jersey could not be sued by a man who slipped and fell on the course after he had entered it during the off-season to calibrate a handheld GPS unit. In Joseph Lareau v. Somerset County Park Commission and Green Knoll Golf Course (A-0, Decided October 9, 2013, unpublished) the Plaintiff brought a suit against the owners of the public golf course to recover for the injuries he allegedly sustained when he slipped on the wet and sloped walkway of a small pedestrian footbridge located across a stream in front of the eighth green. The golf course was closed for the winter season at the time and the Plaintiff had accessed the premises by walking through a row of hedges that separated the course from neighboring condominiums.
The Defendants moved for summary judgment after the close of discovery on several grounds, including that they were entitled to immunity under New Jersey’s Landowner’s Liability Act (LLA). The Trial Court agreed and granted the Defendants summary judgment, Plaintiff’s appeal followed.
The Court began its analysis by looking to the relevant portion of the LLA, which states: “… except as provided in N.J.S.A. 2A:42A4, an owner, lessee or occupant of premises, whether or not posted as provided in [N.J.S.A. 23:77], and whether or not improved or maintained in a natural condition, or used as part of a commercial enterprise, owes no duty to keep the premises safe for entry or use by others for sport or recreational activities, or to give warning of any hazardous condition of the land or in connection with the use of any structure or by reason of any activity on such premises to persons entering for such purposes[.]” The Court then looked to the case of Toogood v. St. Andrews Condominium Ass’n, 313 N.J. Super. 418 (App. Div. 1998), for its interpretation that the statute afforded immunity to “rural and semirural or open tracts of land.” Id. at 425. The Court felt that the Green Knoll Golf Course, a 156 acre parcel of land, qualified as a large tract of open land. The Court explained that, “The property is open land, comparable to an open tract of land in a sparsely populated area. Like owners of property in less densely populated areas, defendants have difficulty guarding against intermittent trespassers to the course.” (Internal citations omitted). Further, the Court found the fact that the land has been improved so that it can be used as a golf course was irrelevant as the LLA provides immunity to lands, regardless of whether they are improved or used for commercial purposes.
The Court also considered the public policy reasons for the enactment of the LLA and determined that the maintenance of the Green Knoll Golf Course and the allowance of access by the general public for passive or active recreational purposes were precisely the types of conduct the Legislature sought to encourage with the LLA. Therefore, the Court reasoned, “…extending immunity to defendants under the LLA would encourage defendants to allow members of the general public to continue to have limited access to the course for some recreational use. Accordingly, the Appellate Court found that the Trial Court had correctly ascertained that the Defendants were entitled to immunity under the LLA and affirmed the Summary Judgment dismissing Plaintiff’s complaint.
By Daniel C. Seger, Esq.