What a year it has been for the Podunk (Texas) High School football team. After the school opened its new $50 million, 18,000-seat stadium at the beginning of the year, the team has reeled off an undefeated regular season and is headed to the playoffs for the first time since 1974.
The scuttlebutt in Podunk (population 10,000) is about how good the team’s chances are of winning a state title. Leading the way is star quarterback Rock Cannon, a senior whose arm strength matches his last name. A number of colleges have offered Rock a scholarship to play for them, and he’s verbally committed to the University of Arkansas.
While on the way to practice in the school’s stadium before their opening playoff game, Rock tripped on an unmarked hollow pipe, fell, and broke his throwing hand’s wrist. Not only is Podunk’s magical season effectively over, but the injury is so severe that he may not throw the football the same again. Subsequently, the colleges have all withdrawn their scholarship offers. Rock’s parents sue the school district on his behalf for negligence. The district responds that Rock’s claims are barred by either the Texas Tort Claims Act or the State’s Recreational Use Statute. Has Rock run into a solid defense?
Rock’s claims are not barred by the Texas Tort Claims Act.
Governmental entities generally enjoy sovereign immunity, or the legal principle from English law that “the king can do no wrong.” The Texas Legislature has enacted the Texas Tort Claims Act (TTCA), which determines in what instances a governmental entity, such as a school district, may be liable for tortious conduct under Texas law. Under the TTCA, governmental entities are not immune from claims arising out of their proprietary functions (such as the operation or maintenance of a public utility), claims arising from the use of a motor vehicle, or premises liability cases. Because Rock’s injury was allegedly caused by a condition at the football stadium (the unmarked hollow pipe) his claims are not barred by the TTCA.
Football is not “recreation”.
What about the district’s second argument that Rock’s claims are barred by the Recreational Use Statute? This statute is important because it limits a property owner’s liability to injuries resulting from gross negligence or malicious conduct. The Texas Supreme Court recently considered two cases involving recreational and competitive sports. In one case, a mother was injured while watching her daughter’s high school soccer game at a local stadium. In the second case, a grandmother was injured when she tripped while walking to the parking lot after watching her granddaughter’s youth softball game. In both cases, the Court made it clear that spectating at a sporting event is not “recreation” under the statute, and therefore a property owner (such as a school district) may be held liable for injuries resulting from negligent conditions. The Court also did an extensive analysis of the statute and found that “[t]he recreational use statute was originally enacted to encourage landowners to open private land for natural pursuits.” The Court reasoned that competitive sports, while sometimes taking place outdoors, did not fall within the statute’s original purpose. Thus, the district’s second argument is a weak defense.
Tilting the Scales in Your Favor
he Recreational Use Statute applies to private property owners as well. If you own private property and lease the property for hunting or fishing – or even bird watching (!!!) – remember that the Recreational Use Statute limits your liability to grossly negligent or malicious conduct. If your land qualifies for agricultural use, your liability is capped at $500,000 per person and $1 million per incident to incentivize private property owners to open their property for recreational purposes.
As always, watch where you are walking!