Mountain Bike Trail Maintenance a Discretionary Governmental Act

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July 26, 2009

Municipal Immunity for Maintenance of Trails

In Martel v. Metro. Dist. Comm'n, 275 Conn. 38 (2005), the plaintiff was injured while mountain biking on an unpaved dirt trail in a recreation area owned by the Metropolitan District Commission ("Commission").[1] The Commission owns 24,000 acres of property in the state, including a recreational area known as "Greenwoods," which consists of 400 acres of partially wooded land through which the west branch of the Farmington River flows. The Commission does not use Greenwoods for water provision or waste management services. Rather, it has opened the area to the public, free of charge, for hunting and fishing. To facilitate these activities, the Commission maintains a parking lot on the property and a handicapped fishing pier. The property also has an old unpaved service road, but the Commission did not create the service road and does not maintain it. Additionally, there are dirt trails located in Greenwoods. Although some Commission employees were aware of these trails, the Commission did not create the trails and does not maintain them. The defendants were not aware of what activities, if any, for which he dirt trails were used.

On July 7, 2001, the plaintiff went mountain biking on an unpaved dirt trail in Greenwoods. One half mile into the trail, the plaintiff arrived at a washed out area covered with small branches and logs that caused him to lose his balance and fall into an abutting ravine, a distance of approximately fifteen to twenty feet. As a result of the fall, the plaintiff sustained serious physical injuries, including paralysis from the chest down.

The plaintiff filed suit, alleging that the defendants were negligent in a variety of ways, including failure to exercise reasonable care in the design, maintenance and supervision of the trails in Greenwoods and to ensure safety on the property. The defendants asserted the special defense of governmental immunity pursuant to Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-557n.

In its memorandum of decision, the trial court noted that § 52-557n protects political subdivisions of the state and its employees from liability when a negligent act or omission is committed within the discretionary duties of the political subdivision or its officers and was not done for pecuniary gain. The trial court concluded that the allegedly negligent acts of the defendants required the exercise of judgment. The trial court noted that the plaintiff failed to submit any evidence demonstrating that the defendants were ministerially required to maintain and supervise the trails in Greenwoods and to ensure safety on the property and, therefore, concluded that the alleged failure of the defendants to perform these duties must be considered a discretionary act.

Accordingly, the trial court rendered summary judgment in favor of the defendants. Thereafter, the plaintiff filed a motion to reargue on the grounds that the trial court's memorandum of decision failed to address the plaintiff's claims that (1) the defendants' allegedly negligent acts were performed for pecuniary benefit, and (2) § 52-557n (b)(4)[2] provides the plaintiff with a direct cause of action. The trial court denied the motion and the plaintiff appealed.

The plaintiff thereafter, subsequent to the filing of the appeal, moved for an articulation of the trial court's decision because the memorandum of decision failed to address plaintiff's claims that the defendants' acts were proprietary in nature and that § 52-557n (b)(4) provides for a direct cause of action. When the trial court did not rule on the motion, the Connecticut Supreme Court remanded the Martel case back to the trial court with direction to articulate its judgment.

In its articulation, the trial court stated that the plaintiff's claim that the defendants were involved in a proprietary function for a pecuniary benefit was so specious an argument and so unrelated to the plaintiff's personal injury claim that no specific response was required. Even if the allegations proved to be true, they would be insufficient to support the plaintiff's claim that the defendants were conducting a proprietary function rather than a governmental function on the land. In addition, the trial court articulated that the plaintiff had no viable cause of action under § 52-557n (b)(4), because the offer of proof raised no material question of fact as to whether the accident occurred because of the condition of an unpaved trail. Furthermore, the plaintiff's claim was adequately ruled out by § 52-557n (b)(1), providing immunity for the defendants for an accident resulting from the conditions of natural land or unimproved property.

On appeal, the defendants set forth alternative grounds for affirming the trail court's judgment: (1) the plaintiff's claims are barred by governmental immunity because they seek damages resulting from the "condition of natural land or unimproved property" within the meaning of § 52-557n (b)(1); and (2) the defendants did not owe a duty of care to the plaintiff because mountain biking was an inherently hazardous sport, the plaintiff was a licensee on the Commission's property, and the commission was an owner of recreational land within the meaning of § 52-557g of the Recreational Use Statute.

The Connecticut Supreme Court held in favor of the defendants in ruling that the trial court properly rendered summary judgment in their favor pursuant to § 52-557n because the defendants' acts were discretionary in nature and were not performed for a pecuniary benefit. The Court further held that § 52-557n (b)(4) did not provide the plaintiff with a direct cause of action. Accordingly, the Court did not reach the defendants' alternate grounds for affirming the trial court's judgment.

[1] The Metropolitan District Commission is a political subdivision of the state, specially chartered by the Connecticut General Assembly for the purpose of water supply, waste management and regional planning. See 20 Spec. Acts 1204, No. 511 (1929). See also Rocky Hill Convalescent Hospital, Inc. v. Metropolitan District, 160 Conn. 446, 450-51 (1971).

[2] Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-557n(b)(4) provides in relevant part: "(b) Notwithstanding the provisions of subsection (a) of this section, a political subdivision of the state or any employee, officer or agent acting within the scope of his employment of official duties shall not be liable for damages to person or property resulting from: ...(4) the condition of an unpaved road, trail or footpath, the purpose of which is to provide access to a recreational or scenic area, if the political subdivision has not received notice and has not had a reasonable opportunity to make the condition safe."