A Publication of WTVP

Farmers and private landowners have long been known to allow citizens to enjoy an adventure of hunting, fishing, camping, snow sledding, bird watching, and other recreational activities on their private property. An adventure in rural Illinois brings back fond memories for thousands of citizens.

Along with this outdoor euphoria comes another side of the story. Issues that dampen a landowner’s willingness to allow people on his land include littering, disrupting livestock, damaging property, or just being disrespectful of another person’s belongings.

Liability was always a concern for landowners, but it hasn’t really seemed to be an issue since the Recreational Use of Land and Water Areas Act was adopted in 1988. The law was an attempt to limit the liability of landowners who allowed people to use their land for recreational purposes. One of the driving forces behind this legislation was the trend toward landowners charging people to use their land for recreational purposes. Adoption of this legislation was to help slow this trend and provide protection for landowners to offer their land for recreation free of charge. The Recreational Use Act never limited the liability of a landowner who charges those who use his land.

That changed in December 2003, when the Illinois Supreme Court handed down a decision in Hall vs. Henn that struck down much of the liability protection by the Recreational Use Act.
The court involved a couple who had a sled run in their back yard. The sled run included steps, a platform, and a luge-like run that had been sprayed with water. The landowners allowed neighbors to use the run as long as they received permission and the landowners were present when neighbors used the run. A neighbor-along with the individual who later slipped on the steps going to the run-received permission to use the run, was injured, sued the landowners, and won. 

The Supreme Court ruled that because the landowners hadn’t opened their property to the public, they didn’t qualify for the protection of the Recreational Use Act. This directly affected landowners who invite or select certain individuals to enter their property free of charge. The decision specifically stated that since the landowners in the case selectively invited guests-instead of inviting the public at large-they were granted no liability protection through the act.

This wasn’t the intent of the General Assembly when passing the law in 1988, but it was a literal interpretation of the language by the courts in December 2003. In response to the court decision, Illinois Sen. Bill Brady, Bloomington, and his staff worked with the Illinois Farm Bureau on Senate Bill 2184 last session in an attempt to address the decision and restore liability protection for those who invite guests onto their property free of charge. The Illinois Trial Attorneys Association was opposed to the legislation and was able to keep the bill from advancing. Ultimately, the bill failed as time ran out during the six-day veto session last November.

A new General Assembly session began in January and brought new hope in establishing protection for private property owners. There were four bills originally introduced to provide liability immunity when a landowner allowed individuals on his land for recreational use. Of the four bills, only one, Senate Bill 251, has moved through the legislative process for negotiating purposes.

If you like to hunt, fish, camp, or just enjoy the great outdoors, you may want to talk to your legislators about liability immunity for recreational land use. IBI