Are you a landowner afraid to let trail riders or foxchasers cross your property for fear of liability?
Or, are you a trail rider trying to convince a nervous landowner that you don’t present a liability risk?
In general, the state of Maryland wants to encourage owners of large open land holdings (both cultivated and uncultivated lands) to allow access to their land by recreational users, such as trail riders. Therefore, the legislature passed laws protecting the landowner from certain liabilities in order to encourage them to open their lands. Title 5, Subtitle 11 of the Natural Resources Article of the Maryland Annotated Code, states
“The purpose of this subtitle is to encourage any owner of land to make land…available to the public for any recreational and educational purpose by limiting the owner’s liability toward any person who enters on land…for these purposes.
The owner of land who directly or indirectly invites or permits without charge, person to use the property for any recreational purpose does not, by this action
- extend any assurance that the premises are safe for any purpose;
- confer upon the person the legal status of an invitee or licensee to whom a duty of care is owed; or
- assume responsibility for or incur liability as a result of any injury to the person or property caused by an act of omission of the person or persons.
An owner of land owes no duty to keep the premises safe for entry or use by others for any recreation…purposes, or to give any warning of a dangerous condition, use, structure, or activity on the premises to any person who enters on land for these purposes.”
However, the statute does not in any way release owners from liability if they willfully or maliciously fail to guard or warn against something blatantly dangerous, such as an uncovered well.
As we have said elsewhere in The Equiery, no law prohibits lawsuits. However, although it is possible for anyone to sue a landowner, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have a case or will win a judgement. The Maryland recreational statute provides landowners good liability protection and a review of case law has found few, if any, judgements to support the myth that juries are awarding plaintiffs large settlements from landowners in liability cases. (Insurance companies’ settling claims out of court fuel these myths, and insurance companies do this not because they think the claimant has a case, but because they do not wish to incur the costs of defending their client in court.) And that is the distinction. Although your chance of being held liable for an injury on your property is small, your chance of just being sued is greater. It is a good idea to have liability insurance, because it will cover costs associated with your defense, as long as your conduct was not criminal, but you need to push your insurance company to go to court. (If we can ever pass a law making plaintiffs responsible for all court costs, including all legal costs for defendants, we will severely reduce these incidents of frivolous lawsuits.)
The Equiery recommends the booklet “Recreational Access and Landowner Liability in Maryland: Guideline for Managing Free or Fee Access,” available through the Maryland Cooperative Extension Service for a small fee. If your local extension office says they don’t have it, insist. Tell them it is Bulletin # 357, and if they still can not find it, contact their headquarter offices at the University of Maryland.
This handy booklet reviews Maryland’s recreational statutes for landowners, liability and children, practicing risk management, understanding what is adequate liability insurance, trespassing and property rights, and controlling recreation use of your land. It also contains resource guides. Get extra copies for your legal counsel and insurance agent. However, always refer your liability questions to an attorney, as it is your insurance agent’s job to sell insurance, not advise on liability.