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  • December 06, 2021

    Protecting Private Landowners: Recreational Immunity in Wisconsin

    Private landowners may be asked to allow the public to use their land for snowmobiling and other recreational activities. Lindsey Kohls provides an overview of the protections for and risks to private landowners who let others engage in recreational activities on their property.

    Lindsey K. Kohls

    As we head into winter, many people across the state will throw on their snowmobiling gear and hop on the approximately 25,000 miles of snowmobile trails we have in Wisconsin.

    Snowmobiling is incredibly popular in the dairy state. There are more than 200,000 registered snowmobiles in Wisconsin,1 and we are home to the World Championship Snowmobile Derby (in Eagle River) and the International Snowmobile Racing Hall of Fame (in St. Germain).2

    25,000 Miles of Trails, Most on Private Property

    For those unfamiliar with snowmobiling, you may be surprised to learn that many snowmobile trails go through private property. In fact, approximately 70 percent of Wisconsin’s snowmobile trails are on private land.3

    Lindsey Kohls Lindsey Kohls, is an attorney with Bakke Norman, S.C., in Menomonie, where she practices in real estate, business, and municipal law.

    If you own land and a snowmobile club or someone else has asked you to allow the trail to go through your property, you may be wondering what the risks are if you permit people to be on your property, particularly whether you can be liable if someone gets injured on your property.

    Wisconsin’s Recreational Immunity Statute

    Wisconsin has a law known as the “Recreational Immunity Statute.”4

    The Wisconsin Legislature’s motivation for the creation of the Recreational Immunity Statute was “the continual shrinkage of the public's access to recreational land in the ever more populated modern world.”5

    The Legislature wanted to encourage landowners to permit public use of their land. They did so by providing immunity to landowners – as well as to those leasing or otherwise occupying property – who allow the public to engage in recreational activities on their properties.

    In the Recreational Immunity Statute, recreational activities are those activities undertaken outdoors for the purpose of exercise, relaxation, or pleasure. The statute also includes a specific mention of snowmobiling as a recreational activity​.6

    Incomplete but Significant Immunity

    Wisconsin’s Recreational Immunity Statute does not provide complete immunity for a landowner in all situations.

    However, the protections this statute does provide are significant. With certain exceptions, landowners cannot be held liable for injuries or death to, or any injuries or death caused by, people using their property for recreation.7

    When people use a private landowner’s property for recreational activities, including snowmobiling, the landowner will not have a duty to keep the property safe for recreational activities, a duty to inspect the property, or a duty to warn people of unsafe conditions, uses, or activities on the property.8

    In addition, if someone becomes injured or dies as a result of an attack by a wild animal on the landowner’s private property, the landowner is not liable.9

    Liability in Some Circumstances

    Despite these considerable protections, private landowners can still be liable for injuries in some circumstances.

    For example, if landowners allow people to use their property for recreation in exchange for money or other compensation,10 and the landowner receives more than $2,000 in the year that someone is injured, the landowner does not get the benefit of the protections discussed above.11

    In addition, if a landowner maliciously fails to warn users of the property of an unsafe condition, or the landowner takes a malicious action against a user of the property, the landowner can be held liable for the user’s injury or death.12

    In certain situations, a landowner can be liable for injuries to social guests and employees as well.13

    While private landowners are not immune from all risks when they allow the public to use their property for recreation, Wisconsin’s Recreation Immunity Statute is to be “liberally construed in favor of immunity.”14 Therefore, if immunity can be applied to the landowner, it will be applied.

    Immunity, but Not Absolute

    Nonetheless, if you choose to open up your property for public recreational activities, remember that Wisconsin’s statutes provide you with substantial, but not absolute, immunity for injuries to others that occur on your property.

    This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Agriculture Law and Rural Practice Blog of the Solo/Small Firm & General Practice Section. Visit the State Bar sections or the Solo/Small Firm & General Practice Section webpages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.

    Endnotes

    1 Snowmobiling in Wisconsin, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

    2 See 59th World Championship Snowmobile Derby, World Championship Derby Complex. See also ​About The Snowmobile Hall of Fame, Snowmobile Hall of Fame.

    3 Chad Diedrick, “Wisconsin Snowmobiling by the Numbers,” The Bobber: The Official Blog of Discover Wisconsin (Dec. 15, 2014).

    4 Wis. Stat. § 895.52.

    5 Westmas v. Creekside Tree Serv., Inc., 2018 WI 12, ¶22, 379 Wis. 2d 471, 907 N.W.2d 68 (citing Roberts v. T.H.E. Ins. Co., 2016 WI 20, ¶28, 367 Wis. 2d 386, 879 N.W.2d 492).

    6 Wis. Stat. § 895.52(1)(g).

    7 Wis. Stat. § 895.52(2)(b).

    8 Wis. Stat. § 895.52(2)(a).

    9 Wis. Stat. § 895.52(2)(b).

    10 Not all payments or gifts will cause someone to lose liability protection. See Wis. Stat. § 895.52(6)(a).

    11 Wis. Stat. § 895.52(6)(a).

    12 Wis. Stat. § 895.52(6)(b)-(c).

    13 Wis. Stat. § 895.52(6)(d)-(e).

    14​Held v. Ackerville Snowmobile Club, Inc., 2007 WI App 43, ¶13, 300 Wis. 2d 498, 730 N.W.2d 428.



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    Agriculture Law & Rural Practice Blog is published by the Solo/Small Firm & General Practice Section and the State Bar of Wisconsin; blog posts are written by section members. To contribute to this blog, contact Nancy Trueblood and review Author Submission Guidelines. Learn more about the Solo/Small Firm & General Practice Section or become a member.

    Disclaimer: Views presented in blog posts are those of the blog post authors, not necessarily those of the Section or the State Bar of Wisconsin. Due to the rapidly changing nature of law and our reliance on information provided by outside sources, the State Bar of Wisconsin makes no warranty or guarantee concerning the accuracy or completeness of this content.

    © 2022 State Bar of Wisconsin, P.O. Box 7158, Madison, WI 53707-7158.

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