What to do about trespassing snowmobilers on the farm?

By:Peggy Kirk Hall, Associate Professor, Agricultural & Resource Law 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