What You Need to Know Before You Pitch Your Tent in the Great Outdoors this Spring Season

As we approach the spring season, warmer temperatures are bound to entice outdoor enthusiasts to venture out to the wide open spaces to camp, hike and backpack. As we all know, there is no shortage of visually stunning and otherwise inviting wilderness areas throughout the state of California to visit – from Big Sur, to Death Valley, to the Trinity Alps Wilderness. However, before you get excited about those hot dogs and s’mores, you should be aware of Government Code § 831.2, commonly referred to as the “natural condition immunity,” which could render public entities immune against claims of premises liability and dangerous condition liability. Government Code § 831.2 provides that “neither a public entity nor a public employee is liable for an injury caused by a natural condition of any unimproved public property, including but not limited to any natural condition of any lake, stream, bay, river or beach.” The purpose of the natural condition immunity is to encourage public use of unimproved government property by relieving government agencies from being “‘put to the expense of making the property safe, responding to tort actions, and paying damages.’” Sounds like a good idea, right? Keep reading to learn how you can be denied damages by a public entity if you camp in an area that is classified as “unimproved.”

The natural condition immunity was discussed in the recently published case of County of San Mateo v. Superior Court of San Mateo County (2017) 13 Cal.App.5th 724. As shown by County of San Mateo, the issue is not straightforward and there are many factors to be considered such that summary judgment is generally not appropriate. Indeed, the lead drafter of the Government Claims Act, Professor Van Alstyne, contemplated that “the distinction between the ‘developed’ land and the ‘undeveloped’ sectors of a park might well be difficult to identify in terms of boundary lines on a map, and might have to be treated as a question fact…”

In County of San Mateo, plaintiff child brought a lawsuit against the County of San Mateo alleging premises liability and dangerous condition of public property after he suffered injuries as a result of a 72-foot tall diseased tree falling on his tent while camping within a County-owned wilderness area. The County moved for summary judgment on the grounds that it was immune from liability under the natural condition immunity.

The trial court denied the County’s motion, concluding that there were triable issues of fact as to whether the subject property was “unimproved” within the meaning of the statute. First, the trial court pointed out that the campsite where plaintiff’s injuries occurred had been “improved” by a clearing, picnic tables, a fire pit, a barbecue pit, and bumper logs and that in the tree’s immediate vicinity, there were two other developed campsites and a paved roadway.

Next, the trial court distinguished the matter from an earlier similar case, Alana M. v. State of California (2016) 245 Cal.App.4th 1482. In Alana M., a public entity was found to be immune from liability in a suit brought against it by plaintiff who had similarly been injured by a falling tree. The Court there explained that the public entity was immune since the tree (and not the plaintiff) was located on unimproved property. The Alana M. Court determined that in interpreting Government Code § 831.2, the relevant inquiry should be the character of the property where the natural condition (in Alana M., the tree) is located, and not the location of where the injury occurred. In County of San Mateo however, plaintiff presented expert opinion that the tree at issue had roots which grew underneath the campsite where plaintiff suffered his injuries. As such, the trail court determined that there were triable issues of fact and therefore, summary judgment would not be appropriate.

Last, the trial court considered expert opinion presented by plaintiff that man-made physical alterations contributed to the diseased condition of the tree which ultimately caused it to break and fall onto plaintiff, causing him injuries. The trial court determined that this evidence presented by plaintiff also created a triable issue of fact of whether such man-made contributions caused the subject property to be considered “improved” such that the County would not be entitled to summary judgment.

Clearly, there are many nuances to the natural condition immunity. So before you load up your packs and begin your ascent up a mountaintop this spring season, consider the character of your campsite and whether the land could be described as “improved.” Otherwise, you may be out of luck if you try to seek monetary compensation for injuries you suffer while you are on your trip in the great outdoors.