Motorcycle & Minibike Injuries

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September 13, 2009

Landowner Liability where Motorcycle & Minibikes are operated

Landowners have no liability for injuries caused through the use of motorcycles or minibikes 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 ... motorcycle or minibike or minicycle, as defined in section 14-1...."

Conn. Gen. Stat. § 14-1(54) provides: "motorcycle" means a motor vehicle, with or without a side care, having not more than three wheels in contact with the ground and a saddle or seat on which the rider sits or a platform on which the rider stands, but does not include a motor-driven cycle, as defined in this section, or a vehicle having or designed to have a completely enclosed driver's seat and a motor which is not in the enclosed area." For comparison purposes, see § 14-1(52) which provides: "Motor-driven cycle" means any motorcycle, motor scooter, or bicycle with attached motor with a seat height or not less than twenty-six inches and a motor that produces five brake horsepower or less."

The Connecticut Supreme Court interpreted § 52-557j in a 1984 case, Warner v. Leslie Elliot Constructors, Inc.[2] In Warner, the decedent was riding a motorcycle on a private roadway on land that was belonged to a group of corporate and individual landowners that were having work performed by the construction company. The administratrix brought a wrongful death action against the landowners and a construction company. As the decedent proceeded along the private roadway, he struck and was killed by a cable or chain that had been stretched across the roadway at a height of approximately three feet. As a result of his contact with the chain or cable, the decedent suffered serious injuries, including a broken windpipe, which caused his death.

In the ensuing wrongful death action, one defendant filed a successful motion to strike and the other defendant filed a successful motion for summary judgment on the basis of § 52-557j. The Court noted that § 52-557j states in plain language that no landowner will be liable for injuries arising from the operation of motorcycles on the landowner's property, unless the landowner charged a fee for the operation, or unless the injury was caused by the willful and malicious conduct of the landowner. The Court also found that § 52-557j applied to improved portions of land such as the roadway that was the site of the accident. "The statute uses the all encompassing term 'property.' Improvements such as private roadways are as much a part of one's property as the natural terrain.[3]

The administratrix in Warner also claimed that § 52-557j violated the equal protection guarantees of the state and federal constitutions in that it impermissibly differentiated between those vehicles enumerated in the statute and other motor vehicles. It is well-settled, however, that a plaintiff who attacks a statute on constitutional grounds has no easy burden.[4] If the statute does not touch upon either a fundamental right or a suspect class, its classification need only be rationally related to some legitimate government purpose in order to withstand an equal protection challenge.[5]

The Court upheld the constitutionality of § 52-557j, finding that there was a body of experience to suggest that operation of motorcycles was more dangerous than that of four-wheeled vehicles because of their relative instability. Connecticut laws frequently distinguish motorcycles from automobiles. Motorcycles are expressly excluded from statutory provisions requiring insurers to pay benefits for an injury sustained in the use of any "private passenger motor vehicle."[6] The legislature could reasonably have concluded that the dangerous nature of motorcycle operation warranted special legislation to protect landowners from liability for negligence.[7]

In a similar 1992 case,[8] where the decedent was operating his motorcycle on a roadway under construction, he lost control of his motorcycle allegedly due to the presence of crushed stone and gravel on the newly developed paved roadway surface. Relying on the Connecticut Supreme Court Warner case, the court found that § 52-557j applies to improved portions of land, and granted the property owner's motion for summary judgment.

Connecticut courts have also held that the immunity of § 52-557j extends to cities and municipalities. In Drisdelle v. Hartford, 3 Conn. App. 343(1985), the plaintiff was riding his trail bike (conceded to be a minibike) on a path located in a park owned by the city. As the plaintiff proceeded along the path, he struck a wire entwined with broken fence posts strewn across the path and as a result suffered serious injuries. The plaintiff filed suit against the City of Hartford, and the Director of the Department of Parks and Recreation.

The plaintiff contended that it was not the legislative intent to encompass municipalities within the scope of § 52-557j, but that this section was limited to affording relief to rural property owners who suffered potential liability from trespassers. Furthermore, the plaintiff argued that there was no legislative intent to impinge upon Conn. Gen. Stat. § 7-465(a), by which a municipality assumes liability for damage caused by an employee under certain circumstances.

The Appellate Court noted that salient question was whether the city was a "landowner" within the ambit of § 52-557j. The word "landowner" within the context of § 52-557j was defined by the Connecticut Supreme Court to mean one who holds title.[9] "When we say, a man has title to property we mean he is the owner of it; and vice versa. In the construction of statutes, words and phrases shall be construed according to the commonly approved usage of the language. Conn. Gen. Stat. § 1-1(a). The commonly approved use of the word 'owner' indicates 'one that owns: one that has the legal or rightful title whether the possessor or not.' Webster, Third New International Dictionary."[10] It was not disputed that the accident occurred in a city-owned park. The Appellate Court, noting that the legislature could readily have excluded municipalities from the immunity of § 52-557j had it so desired, upheld the trial court's granting of the city's motion to strike.[11]

The immunity of § 52-557j also applies to parking lots. In Smith v. Country Scents Candle, Inc., 2001 Conn. Super. LEXIS 3323, the plaintiff was injured while operating his motorcycle in a parking lot when he was struck by a dirt bike operated by a trespasser. The court held that the ruling in Warner that the immunity of § 52-557j included improved areas such as private roads applied with equal vigor to parking lots.[12]

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

[3] Warner v. Leslie-Elliott Constructors, 194 Conn. 129, 135 (1984).

[4] Kellems v. Brown, 163 Conn. 478, 486 (1972).

[5] Ryszkiewicz v. New Britain, 193 Conn. 589, 597 (1984).

[6] Conn. Gen. Stat. § 38-321.

[7] Warner v. Leslie-Elliott Constructors, 194 Conn. 129, 136 (1984).

[8] Oliver v. Meadowview, Inc., 1992 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2443.

[9] Warner v. Leslie-Elliott Constructors, 194 Conn. 129, 137 (1984).

[10] Warner v. Leslie-Elliott Constructors, 194 Conn. 129, 137 (1984).

[11] Drisdelle v. Hartford, 3 Conn. App. 343(1985).

[12] Smith v. Country Scents Candle, Inc., 2001 Conn. Super. LEXIS 3323; see also Stevenson v. Bridgeport, 1990 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1381; Galinski v. Neukom, 2004 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1907.