Recreational User Statute

By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Thursday, February 18th, 2021

Ohio landowners have seen it before:  when the snow flies, so do the snowmobilers.   Landowners are forced to watch snowmobilers crossing their fields and driveways and cutting through woods and homesteads, without permission and apparently without concern for property damage.   Two common questions from landowners arise at this time:  what can I do about them, and will I be liable if there’s an accident?   While the answers aren’t always satisfactory to landowners, several Ohio laws try to address these two questions.

What can you do about snowmobilers on your land?

One possibility for dealing with unwanted snowmobilers is to call local law enforcement.  That might not get the results you’d like, given the difficulty of identifying and catching snowmobilers and limited law enforcement resources in rural areas.  Trail cameras, pictures, or other ways of verifying the sleds and riders might be helpful.  Look for the registration decal on the front of the sled, which allows tracking it to its owner.   Despite these challenges, there are two sections of Ohio law that provide for criminal actions against trespassing snowmobilers if you can apprehend them:

  • Ohio criminal trespass laws make it a fourth degree misdemeanor to knowingly or recklessly be on another’s land without permission or to fail to leave after seeing “no trespass” or similar signs of restricted access or being notified by an owner.  Committing this type of trespass while on a snowmobile doubles the fine to up to $500, and up to 30 days in jail is also possible.  The court could also award damages for harm to the landowner victim of the criminal trespass.   A second offense can result in impoundment of the title to the snowmobile. 
  • Ohio motor vehicle laws also address snowmobilers specifically.  The law prohibits a snowmobiler from operating on any private property or in a nursery or planting area without the permission of the landowner or tenant of the property.  The penalty for doing so is a fine of $50 to $500 and potential jail time of three to 30 days. Note that snowmobilers are also not allowed to operate on state highways, railroad tracks and railroad rights of way, and anywhere after sunset without required lighting.  The law does allow snowmobilers to drive on berms and shoulders of roads, across highways if done safely, and on county and township roads if permitted to do so by the county or township.

Another potential legal strategy is to bring a civil action against trespassing snowmobilers.  Again, that requires knowing who they are and proving that they were on your property.  A few laws that could apply are:

  • Ohio’s law on civil trespass is a court made law, and it requires showing that a person intentionally entered another’s land without permission and caused harm to the land.  If a snowmobiler harmed the property while trespassing, this type of claim allows a landowner to seek compensation for that harm.  Examples of harm that might arise include damaged fences, culverts, drives, and crops. 
  • If the snowmobiler behaved recklessly and caused damage, another law comes into play.  Ohio law prohibits a person from recklessly destroying or injuring vegetation on another’s land, which includes crops, trees, saplings, vines, and bushes.  “Recklessly” means with heedless indifference to the consequences of an act.    To punish the reckless behavior, the law awards compensation to the landowner for three times the value of the destroyed vegetation.  This law can be particularly helpful when the ground is not frozen and snowmobiling damages the crop beneath the snow.

Other than legal action, a few management practices might be helpful in deterring snowmobilers.  We’ve removed many of the old fences that used to fence in our farms, but fencing is an obvious although costly solution.   If you put up a fence, it should be noticeable and not just a thin wire or two.  Consider flagging the fence with neon markers.  Beyond fences, other actions can help mark property boundaries clearly.  No trespassing signs serve this purpose, but make sure they are easy to see when there’s snow, are visible from a distance, and are placed where snowmobilers might enter the property.  You may have other ways to restrict access to the area where snowmobilers enter, but be aware that you could be liable if you set up a “trap” or dangerous situation that harms a snowmobiler, discussed in the next section.

Will you be liable if there’s a snowmobile accident on your land?

Attorneys often prefer to answer a question with “it depends” but in this case, we could add “but probably not.”  Generally, Ohio law doesn’t favor making a landowner liable for harm that a trespasser suffers while trespassing.  But there are a few exceptions to the general rule:

  • One exception is if the landowner commits a willful, wanton, or reckless act that harms a trespasser.   Shooting at a snowmobiler is a good example, as is placing a single strand of barbed wire or thin wire across a drive or opening to “stop” snowmobilers.   Landowners could be liable for harm resulting from these and similar intentional acts that could harm a snowmobiler.
  • Another exception to non-liability is if a landowner knows or should know that a trespasser is in a “position of peril” and fails to take ordinary care to prevent harm from the perilous situation.  For example, if you know there’s a big hole in the middle of the field where snowmobilers always cross and you don’t mark it off so the snowmobilers can see it, you might be failing to protect them from a “position of peril.”  Remember, the landowner must be aware of the perilous situation and must fail to take any protective measures for this exception to apply.  Landowners don’t like knowing they can be liable to trespassers in such a situation, but the law expects us to protect people from harms we know of even if those people are trespassing.

The good news is that Ohio has a law that can make landowners completely immune from any liability for snowmobilers.  The Recreational User Statute applies to non-residential premises like farms and parks, and states that the owner or occupant of the premises has no duty to keep a “recreational user” safe and no liability for injuries caused to or by recreational users.   The catch, though, is that a recreational user is someone who has “permission” to be engaging in a recreational use on the property and is not paying for that use, unless the payment is through a leasing situation.   

The practical outcome of the Recreational User Statute is that it protects landowners only if the snowmobilers have permission to be snowmobiling on the property.  What if the snowmobilers never came to you for permission, or you don’t even know who they are in order to go and give them permission?  One court in Ohio dealt with this situation, and concluded that a landowner who “acquiesces” to recreational users and does not tell them to leave is in effect granting permission.  In that case, a snowmobiler who had snowmobiled across a farm for years without ever asking permission sued the landowners after wrecking in an area where the landowners had installed new drain tiles.  Because the landowners had never told the snowmobiler to leave the property, the court held that the landowners had indeed granted permission.   If other courts follow this reasoning, landowners have liability protection under the Recreational User Statute if they allow snowmobilers to use the property by way of not telling them to leave.

What solutions are we missing in Ohio?

There currently isn’t a perfect legal solution to the snowmobile problems many landowners are facing this winter.  Owners can secure and mark their properties, call the sheriff, file a legal action, and hope the Recreational User Statute protects them from liability.  But understandably, landowners may still get agitated and feel hopeless when they hear the snowmobiles coming. 

Are there solutions that could better address landowner concerns about snowmobilers?  After reviewing how other states have tackled snowmobile problems, it appears that our trespass laws are quite similar to other states.  Some states have a "purple paint" law that allows landowners to mark their boundaries with purple paint marks on trees and posts, making it easier to identify the boundaries.  Ohio has tried but failed to pass a purple paint law

A more noticeable difference between Ohio and other states is that Ohio has only 100 miles of groomed snowmobile trails, according to the American Council of Snowmobile Associations.  Compare that to 20,000 miles in Minnesota; 6,500 miles in Michigan; 6,000 miles in Pennsylvania and 2,500 in Illinois.  Could the lack of available snowmobile trails be a contributor to our problem in Ohio?

Some of the trails in other states are on public lands while others are a mix of public and private lands.  Several states work directly with private landowners to enhance their trail systems.  In Indiana, local snowmobile clubs maintain and monitor 200 miles of groomed trails that the state leases from private landowners.  Minnesota’s United Snowmobilers Association works with landowners who allow snowmobile trails on their property through a “Landowner Trail Permit” system.  Local snowmobile clubs maintain the trails and provide signage, and only registered snowmobilers may use the trails.  State law protects the landowners from liability for trail use.

Before the snow flies next year, maybe we can develop these and other new ideas to address the old problem of snowmobile trespassing in Ohio.   

USDA NAL and National Agricultural Law Center

By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Monday, December 02nd, 2019

With archery season in full swing and deer gun season opening today, hunters will be out in full force across Ohio.  That means it’s also high season for questions about hunting laws, trespassers, property harm, and landowner liability.  Below, we provide answers to the top ten frequently asked questions we receive on these topics.

  1. I gave them permission to hunt on my land, but do I have to sign something?  Yes.  Permission to hunt should be in writing.  Ohio law requires a person to obtain written permission from a landowner or the landowner’s agent before hunting on private lands or waters and to carry the written permission while hunting.  A hunter who doesn’t obtain written permission can be subject to criminal misdemeanor charges.  ORC 1533.17.  The ODNR provides a permission form at http://wildlife.ohiodnr.gov/Portals/wildlife/pdfs/publications/hunting/Pub8924_PermissiontoHunt.pdf.   If a hunter uses another form, read it carefully before signing and ensure that it only addresses hunting and doesn’t grant other rights that you don’t want to allow on the land.
  2. Do family members need a license to hunt on my land?  Some of them will, depending on their relationship to you.  Resident landowners, their children of any age and their grandchildren under the age of 18 are exempt from the hunting license requirement when hunting on the landowners’ private lands and waters.  The same rule applies if a limited liability company (LLC), limited liability partnership (LLP) or a trust holds the land and the LLC, LLP or trust has three or fewer members, partners, trustees and beneficiaries, as long as the LLC member, LLP partner or trustee is a resident of Ohio.   When the landowner is not a resident, only the landowner, spouse and children of any age may hunt without a license, and only if the landowner’s state of residency grants the same rights to Ohioans who own land in that state.  ORC 1533.10.  Family members who don’t fall under the license exemption must obtain a hunting license and follow the written permission requirement.   
  3. Does a hunter need my permission to retrieve an animal injured on another property?  Yes.  The written permission requirement applies to all of these activities:  shooting, shooting at, catching, killing, injuring, or pursuing a wild bird, wild waterfowl or wild animal.  ORC 1533.17.
  4. Will I be liable if a hunter is injured on my land?  Probably not.  Two laws apply to this situation, depending upon whether you gave the hunter permission.   A landowner is not liable for injuries to or harm caused by a hunter who does not have written permission to be on the land.  ORC 1533.17.  Ohio’s Recreational User Statute applies when a hunter does have permission to be on the land; it states that a landowner has no legal duty to keep the premises safe for a hunter and assumes no responsibility for or incurs liability for any injury to person or property caused by any act of a hunter.  ORC 1533.181.  Note that this immunity doesn’t apply if the landowner charges a fee for hunting, unless the fee is a payment made under a hunting lease with a hunter or hunting group.  ORC 1533.18.  Read more about the law in our law bulletin, here.  These laws provide significant protection from liability for hunter injuries, but won’t protect a landowner who willfully or recklessly causes harm to hunters.  One situation that might rise to the level of willful or reckless conduct by a landowner is granting permission to too many hunters and failing to inform or manage the hunters, explained below.
  5. What if several people want to hunt on my land—how many should I allow?  Ohio law does not state how many hunters can have permission to hunt on a parcel, but be careful about setting up a dangerous situation by allowing multiple hunters on the land at onceIf you do give permission to several hunters, let them know that others could also be hunting on the land and designate a particular parking area so that they know when other hunters are present.  You could even consider scheduling hunters on certain days.  If the hunters are part of a hunting club, consider leasing your land to the hunting club and letting the club decide how to manage multiple hunters (see our Hunting Lease checklist, here).  Taking such steps to manage multiple hunters will ensure that you aren’t behaving recklessly and have immunity from liability under the Recreational User Statute.
  6. Should I allow a hunter to bring along someone who’s not hunting? In regards to liability for that person, the Recreational User Statute described above applies to any person engaging in any kind of recreational activity, in addition to hunting. Hiking or walking on the land is a recreational activity covered under the law.  As long as you give permission and don’t charge the recreational user a fee, the law provides immunity from liability for their injuries. 
  7. What if a hunter leaves a tree stand or a blind on my land—can I get rid of it?  It depends.  It’s okay to carefully remove a stand or blind from the area, but be careful about damaging or getting rid of it too soon if it’s the property of a hunter who had permission to be on the land.  According to Ohio common law, you might be liable for the property under a claim of “conversion” if the property is not “abandoned” or “lost.”  Abandoned property is that to which the owner has relinquished all rights with the intention of not reclaiming it, while lost property is that which the owner has involuntarily parted with through neglect, carelessness, or inadvertence.  A finder who possesses abandoned property takes absolute title to the property, while a finder of lost property takes title against everyone except the owner.  In either case, destroying or disposing of property that is not abandoned or lost could lead to a claim of conversion, and you could be liable for the damages. 
  8. What if a hunter who had my permission to hunt ends up harming my property?  There are two ways with deal with property harm from hunters.  First, the hunting laws prohibit a hunter from acting in a negligent, careless or reckless manner so as to injure persons or property.  Violating this law can lead to first degree misdemeanor charges and compensation to the landowner, as well as revocation of the hunting licenses and permits.  ORC 1533.171 and 1533.99.  Second, Ohio law allows a landowner to seek compensation for the “reckless “destruction of vegetation, trees and crops under ORC 901.51.  Reckless means acting intentionally and without regard for consequences.  If successful, a landowner can receive triple the amount of the harm caused to the property.   
  9. What can I do to a trespasser who’s hunting on my land?   Dealing with trespassers is tricky.  First, don’t willfully harm the trespasser, as you could be liable for causing intentional harm.  Second, call your local ODNR wildlife officer or the Turn in a Poacher program, below, to report the incident.  Third, read our law bulletin on “Do’s and Don’ts of Dealing with Trespassers on the Farm,” available on farmoffice.osu.edu, here
  10. What if I see someone violating hunting laws?  ODNR’s “Turn in a Poacher” program encourages the public to report wildlife violations such as hunting out of season or without a license or permission.  The program provides several ways to report:  complete an online form available at http://wildlife.ohiodnr.gov/stay-informed/turn-in-a-poacher-tip and submit it through the internet or via mail,  call the TIP hotline at 1-800-POACHER, or use the same number to text photos of suspects, vehicles or signs of violations.  All reports are confidential.   

The nursery rhyme “A Hunting We Will Go” paints a happy-go-lucky picture of hunting.  But hunting raises many questions and concerns for agricultural landowners.  Ohio law offers rules and remedies that can ease those concerns.  Landowners who know and use the laws just might be able to hum along with the nursery rhyme through hunting season.

 

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