Snowmobile & All-Terrain Vehicle Injuries

August 17, 2009

By: David K. Jaffe

Landowner Liability where Snowmobiles & ATVs are operated

Landowners have no liability for injuries caused through the use of snowmobiles or all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) upon their land, regardless of whether the user had permission to be on the land, unless the landowner charged a fee for such use or engaged in willful or malicious conduct, under the immunity provided by Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-557j.[1] Section § 52-557j begins by referencing a definition section of the General Statutes: "No landowner may be held liable for any injury sustained by any person operating a snowmobile, all-terrain vehicle, as defined in section 14-379 ...."

Conn. Gen. Stat. § 14-379 provides: "snowmobile" means any self-propelled vehicle designed for travel on snow or ice, except vehicles propelled by sail; "all-terrain vehicle" means a self-propelled vehicle designed to travel over unimproved terrain and which has been determined by the Commissioner of Motor Vehicles to be unsuitable for operation on the public highways which is not eligible for registration under chapter 246; "operate" means to control the course of or otherwise use a snowmobile or all-terrain vehicle."

In a 2006 case,[2] the plaintiff injured persons alleged that the property owners were negligent in allowing an injured person to ride an all-terrain vehicle on their property without any warning of artificial terrain changes and any instruction of how to navigate the vehicle and in failing to provide adequate safeguards or protection from falls off the vehicle. The court held the focus of Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-557j was on use of certain inherently dangerous vehicles on private land rather than on public use of private land. Accordingly, § 52-557j provided immunity to a landowner even if his land was not open to the public for recreational use, as long as other requirements were met.

The plaintiffs, Krystal and Patrick Coombe, filed a complaint against the defendants, Mary and Dorothy Kovac, for injuries and losses allegedly sustained by Krystal Coombe while riding an all-terrain vehicle on the defendant's property. The plaintiffs alleged that Krystal was invited to a July 4 th gathering at the defendants' house, and while occupying an all-terrain vehicle provided by the defendants for their guests' use, was injured when the vehicle "impacted the ground with crushing force." They allege that the defendants were negligent in allowing Coombe to ride an all-terrain vehicle on their property without any warning of artificial terrain changes and any instruction of how to navigate the vehicle and in failing to provide adequate safeguards or protection from falls off the vehicle. Patrick Coombe also claimed a loss of consortium.

The defendants filed a motion to strike the complaint on the ground that it was legally insufficient because Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-557j provided immunity from liability to the defendants. The defendants argued that the language of the statute was plain and unambiguous. The plaintiffs argued that the defendants misinterpreted § 52-557j by failing to take into account the broader context from which the statute was drawn. The plaintiffs argued that the purpose of § 52-557j was to promote recreational use of land by providing immunity to those private landowners who opened their land to the public and the defendants were outside the scope of protection provided by § 52-557j.

Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-557j states in plain language that no landowner will be liable for any injuries to operators or passengers arising from the operation of certain vehicles including motorcycles or all-terrain vehicles on the landowner's property unless the landowner charged a fee for the operation, or unless the injury was caused by the willful or malicious conduct of the landowner. The language is clear and unambiguous.[3] The legislature has effectively abrogated the common law right to sue such a landowner for negligence resulting in injuries from the operation of a motorcycle or an all-terrain vehicle.[4] Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-557j limits landowner liability to situations where such owner charged a fee for such operation or such injury was caused by the willful or malicious conduct of such landowner.[5]

The plaintiffs argued that, even if the language of the statute was clear and unambiguous, an ambiguity arose in the application of the statute to the particular facts of the case. They argued that it was not the legislative intent to encompass social guests at a private party within the scope of § 52-557j, indicating that the defendants' property was not held out to the public. The defendants argued that the plain language of § 52-557j did not expressly exclude social guests.

The plaintiffs relied on Conway v Wilton, 238 Conn. 653 (1996) to support their argument that § 52-557j should apply only to those landowners who opened their land to the public. In Conway v. Wilton, the Connecticut Supreme Court held that the legislative history of the Recreational Land Use Act, Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-557f et seq., did not suggest that the legislature intended to provide immunity for governmental entities.[6] After contemplating the legislative history of the act, the Court found that the immunity conferred by the act was the carrot that legislators dangled before private landowners to encourage them to make their property available for public recreation.[7] The Court's overall discussion about the legislative history of the act, encompassing §§ 52-557f through 52-557 i, however, did not include that of § 52-557j. Instead, the Court noted that § 52-557j and § 52-557g served different purposes: § 52-557g offered immunity as an incentive for private landowners to open up their land to free public use, while the purpose of § 52-557j was to immunize landowners from liability to operators or passengers of certain vehicles regardless of whether their land was open to the public for recreational use and regardless of whether the owner even knew that others were using his land.[8] The focus of § 52-557j was on use of certain inherently dangerous vehicles on private land rather than on public use of private land. Accordingly, § 52-557j provides immunity to a landowner even if his land was not open to the public for recreational use, as long as other requirements were met.

Connecticut courts have held that § 52-557j is applicable to an action against a landowner by a social invitee of the landowner. In Galinski v. Neukom, 2004 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1907, where the plaintiff, a minor, was invited to the defendant's property and was injured while riding a minibike owned by the defendant, the court held that § 52-557j was applicable to cases involving a social invitee because the language of the statute unambiguously encompassed such cases. There is no exception for social invitees in § 52-557j. It authorized recovery only where the plaintiff has shown that a fee was charged or the landowner acted willfully or maliciously.[9] Where the language used by the legislature is plain and unambiguous, there is no room for construction by the courts and the statute will be applied as its words direct.[10] Courts cannot create an exception to a statute which the legislature itself has not created either expressly or by implication.[11]

The legislative history of § 52-557j also reveals that § 52-557j covers social invitees. Representative Richard B. Edwards, in his remarks before the House of Representatives, raised this particular issue: "If an individual ... has a motorcycle and is invited to a person's house, drives in the driveway and there's a hazard there that should not be there ... and he is injured by that, the landowner I believe would be held responsible. Does this bill relieve the owner of that piece of property, not necessarily farm land ... from liability?[12].

Representative Thomas H. Dooey, one of the primary sponsors of the statute, responded that the statute would necessarily cover such cases to provide broader protection to the owners of farmland is eastern Connecticut.[13] In this respect, § 52-557j, like other recreational land use statutes, reflects the judgment of the legislature that the public benefit of attracting private landowners to allow their land to be used outweighs the risk of potential injuries.[14]

The plaintiffs, however, had also alleged negligent supervision in their complaint, and indicated that the defendants owned and provided the instrumentality of the incident to the plaintiffs. Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-557j may not apply to those cases in which a plaintiff claims negligent supervision by a landowner.[15] There is no language in § 52-557j barring actions for injuries caused by negligent supervision.

Negligent supervision requires pleading that the defendant had a duty to supervise and knew or should have known that a particular behavior would have caused injury of the general nature of the kind suffered by the plaintiff.[16] In general, the ultimate test of the existence of the duty to use care is found in the foreseeability that harm may result if it is not exercised.[17] Would the ordinarily prudent man in the position of the defendant, knowing what he knew or should have known, anticipate that harm of the general nature of that suffered was likely to result. This does not mean foreseeability of any harm whatsoever or foreseeability that the particular injury which resulted would occur. It is, in short, the foreseeability or anticipation that harm of the general nature of that suffered would be likely to result, which gives rise to a duty to use due care, breach of which might constitute negligence.[18] Thus, as a matter of law, a duty to supervise an adult invitee may exist in certain situations.[19]

In the Coombe case, the court held that in light of the inherently dangerous nature of an all-terrain vehicle and the alleged artificial terrain changes, the defendants knew or should have known that their failure to supervise Coombe would cause the kind of injury that she suffered. Her injuries were the type of general harm that was reasonably foreseeable under the circumstances.


[1] Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-557j provides: "No landowner may be held liable for any injury sustained by any person operating a snowmobile, all-terrain vehicle, as defined in section 14-379, motorcycle or minibike or minicycle, as defined in section 14-1, upon the landowner's property or by any passenger in the snowmobile, all-terrain vehicle or motorcycle, minibike or minicycle, whether or not the landowner had given permission, written or oral, for the operation upon his land unless the landowner charged a fee for the operation, or unless the injury is caused by the willful or malicious conduct of the landowner."

[2] Coombe v. Kovach, 2006 Conn. Super. LEXIS 3631.

[3] Warner v. Leslie-Elliott Constructors, 194 Conn. 129, 133 (1984).

[4] Warner v. Leslie-Elliott Constructors, 194 Conn. 129, 131 (1984).

[5] Warner v. Leslie-Elliott Constructors, 194 Conn. 129, 131-32 (1984).