Public Park and Field Users Beware:  Commonwealth Court Affirms Governmental Immunity 

By: Andrew D.H. Rau

In a recent case involving a broken ankle suffered during a flag football game in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, the Commonwealth Court has broadly construed governmental immunity from certain lawsuits.  In Davis v. City of Philadelphia, the Court found that the Recreational Use of Land and Water Act (RULWA) protected the city from suit.  The plaintiff broke the ankle after tripping in a depression on a field, and sued (among others) the City of Philadelphia.

RULWA protects municipal bodies from suit where users of unimproved public land are injured.  The plaintiff claimed that the City’s Fairmount Park is highly developed and therefore not protected by RULWA.  However, the Court found that the field in question was by and large unimproved, and threw the claim out as against the City.

The conclusion:  even in a highly maintained park system where a municipality might otherwise be liable for a condition of real estate, the courts may look to the site of the injury itself, rather than the entire park, to determine whether the land is unimproved and RULWA-protected.

The interplay between RULWA and other immunity statutes, such as the Tort Claims Act, creates a complex analysis, and local governments must consider various facts and issues in determining legal exposure.  For more information on municipal liability and public lands, contact Andrew D.H. Rau.

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