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Court Limits Some Indirect Benefits Arguments Against Recreational Property Act Immunity

The Georgia Court of Appeals recently reversed its decision that a landowner’s subjective intent in the use of its property or any indirect financial benefits received by the use of its property created fact questions under the Recreational Property Act (the “RPA”). Mercer Univ. v. Stofer, A17A1515, 2020 WL 1239700 (Ga. Ct. App. Mar. 13, 2020). Sally Stofer’s family sued after she suffered fatal injuries while attending a free concert which Mercer University (“Mercer”) hosted at a public park. Her family filed a wrongful death action against Mercer, asserting negligence claims. Mercer’s motion for summary judgment arguing that it was immune under the RPA was denied based on the Court finding that there was a jury question as to Mercer’s “purpose” in holding the concert. The Georgia Supreme Court granted Mercer’s petition for certiorari and concluded that the RPA requires a determination of the true scope and nature of the landowner’s invitation to use its property. Mercer University v. Stofer, 306 Ga. 191 (2019).

On remand, the Court held that a landowner’s subjective profit motivations are irrelevant to the analysis of whether a landowner maintained the requisite recreational purpose for entitlement to immunity under the RPA, nor is the fact that the owner might have obtained an indirect financial benefit. Rather, the relevant question is whether the landowner actually invited people onto the property (directly or indirectly) to do something recreational, or whether people have instead been allowed onto the property to engage in commercial activity.

This determination is made by considering: (1) the nature of the activity that constitutes the use of the property in which people have been invited to engage, and (2) the nature of the property that people have been invited to use. The first question asks whether the activity in which the public was invited to engage was of a kind that qualifies as recreational under the RPA, and the second question asks whether at the relevant time the property was of a sort that is used primarily for recreational purposes or primarily for commercial activity. Therefore, immunity under the RPA is not defeated based on any indirect financial benefit to the owner or the owner’s subjective intent in inviting the public onto the property. The Court’s decision limits the analysis required under the RPA and provides additional protection for landowner’s which may receive an indirect benefit from hosting a free event.

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