WOODLAND HILLS, CA – In Klein v. United States, a decision with broad implications for both outdoor recreationists and landowners within the State of California, the court sided with outdoor enthusiasts. Simply stated, the court determined that landowners should not be let off the hook when they negligently injure people in National Parks and other recreational areas. The California Supreme Court has ruled that workers in national parks and other recreational areas must ensure the safety of visitors or be held responsible for their actions.
The case involved Alan Klein, who was riding his bicycle for recreational purposes in a mountainous region of the Angeles National Forest in the Los Angeles area. Tragically, Mr. Klein was struck head-on by an automobile driven by a person working for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, on his way to observe condors for the agency, when the accident occurred. As a result, Klein suffered catastrophic injuries.
Klein was represented by David G. Jones, a partner in the Woodland Hills, California-based law firm of Santiago, Rodnunsky & Jones. “This decision will certainly ensure that the millions of people who love the outdoors and the adventure that it provides will do so in a safer environment, where those surrounding them are responsible for their actions and suffer consequences when someone is injured,” stated Mr. Jones, Klein’s attorney. “This is an important day for the recreationists of California,” continued Mr. Jones.
The court indicated that California “has a strong interest in promoting the safe driving of motor vehicles and in preventing or minimizing personal injuries resulting from motor vehicle accidents.” The decision “furthers these interests by encouraging property owners and their employees to drive safely on their lands so as to reduce collisions with, and injuries to, persons engaged in recreational activities on those lands.”
Given the high court’s reputation as one of the most innovative of state judiciaries, often setting precedents that heavily influence other state and federal courts, such a decision is potentially far-reaching. The rulings of California’s highest court are by far the most followed of any state supreme court in the United States.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which sent the case to the Supreme Court, stated, “It is of no small moment that the federal government owns millions of acres of National Park and National Forest land within the state of California. Shielding the United States from liability for the negligent driving, and possibly for other negligent acts, of its employees on all of these lands may have substantial and negative consequences for the many residents of and visitors to California who make use of federal lands for recreational purposes.”
While the decision may have serious implications to California landowners, as the cost of defending and compensating against this type of landowner negligence could run into millions of dollars per year, on balance, this positive change resulting in the protection and safety of recreationists clearly outweighs the potential costs to individual landowners.