Trail Immunity

Trail Immunity

Take action to help your agency be smarter about risk management!

Take action to help your agency be smarter about risk management!

ReClaim is an important, data-informed initiative that embodies two concepts: First, developing a deep understanding of the claims that represent the greatest impact to members, including cost, reputation, and disruption. Second, building strategies to reduce these claims in the future.

Although these claims impact members differently, depending on each agency’s size and history, there is one common data point: For the liability program—the one program in which all California JPIA members participate—the top five claims have cost $85M over the last five years, or $17M shared annually by all members of the pool.

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  1.  Can trail immunity apply to paved walkways?

    Yes. Trail immunity applies to any paved trail, walkway, path, or sidewalk on an easement of way which has been granted to a public entity as long as the public entity reasonably attempts or attempted to provide adequate warnings of any condition of the trail that creates a potential hazard to users. The immunity does not apply to arterial roadways or other paved “roads” simply because they are used for recreational purposes, (e.g., bicycling on an arterial roadway with or without a bike lane).

  2.  Do public entities need to maintain trails in order to apply trail immunity?

    California Government Code Section 831.4 states that public agencies aren’t liable for injuries caused by a condition of an unpaved trail. Although inspections aren’t required for unpaved trails, they are required for paved trails. Additionally, since immunity is not lost for inspecting an unpaved trail, it is a good idea to inspect them, also. See the Authority’s Trail Inspection and Maintenance Checklist available in the California JPIA resource library.

  3.  How can trail managers help reduce their agency’s liability?

    The suggestions below have been created to help public agencies reduce their exposure to liability regarding trails.

    For any paved trail that provides access to unimproved property that is obtained through an easement:

    • Create comprehensive, written standards for trail-building and maintenance and adhere to them.
    • Regularly inspect and maintain paved trails, and indefinitely retain documentation of inspections and corrective actions.
    • Warn of known hazards by installing signage where appropriate.

    For any trail, paved or unpaved, the following suggestions can be considered:

    • Close trails if dangerous conditions such as wildfire, extreme heat, land movement, etc. exist.
    • Install bollards or similar barriers at trailheads to prevent motorized vehicle access.
    • Install informational signs at trailheads indicating authorized use. For example, e-bike use is permitted on some trails but not on others.
    • Create an emergency plan that facilitates providing rapid assistance to trail users who may get into trouble. This can include ensuring first responders are familiar with the area, know how to locate and access trail users, and have access to any locked gates.
    • Ensure that developed trailheads are ADA accessible. While certain individuals with disabilities may not be able to access the trail network, public entities have an obligation to ensure facilities such as restrooms and visitor centers are accessible.

    See the Authority’s newsletter article titled Recreational Trail Immunity for more information


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Relevant Court Cases

  1.  Amberger-Warren v. City of Piedmont (2006)

    After being bumped by her dog at a public park in Piedmont, Anni Amberger-Warren hurt her hand as she grabbed an exposed cement edge to avoid falling down the hill next to the paved pathway. Amberger-Warren sued the City of Piedmont, asserting that her injuries were caused by dangerous conditions on public property. She argued that the accident did not occur on a “trail” and the accident was caused by dangerous conditions “unrelated” to the trail. However, the pathway runs through a park and was used for recreational purposes, so it was considered a trail. In addition, the court found that “location, no less than design, is an integral feature of a trail.” Because the trail provided access to the hill, the court agreed the hill was an inherent feature of the trail and qualified for trail immunity.

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  2.  Lorin Toeppe v. City of San Diego (2017)

    Lorin Toeppe was strolling on a trail through Mission Bay Park in San Diego when a branch from a eucalyptus tree fell and struck her. She sued the City of San Diego, claiming that the tree was knowingly negligently maintained by city staff and the city was liable for her injuries. The City maintained that Toeppe was on a trail when she was injured so San Diego should be immune from liability because of trail immunity. However, the court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, asserting that eucalyptus tree was the alleged dangerous condition, not the trail itself, so trail immunity would not apply. The court found that if the tree was not adequately maintained, visitors could be at-risk of this condition even if they were not on the trail. The tree was not “related to” a condition of the trail, so trail immunity could not be granted.

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  3.  Loeb v. County of San Diego (2019)

    After tripping and falling on an uneven “concrete pathway” in a San Diego County public park, a plaintiff sued the county. While the court initially denied the county’s motions to assert trail immunity because it was a path to public restrooms, the motion was granted when the plaintiff’s counsel admitted the pathway was used for recreational purposes. Though the plaintiff argued the pathway was used only to provide an accessible trail to a handicapped-accessible restroom, the court concluded that mixed-use paths are entitled to trail immunity. The ruling stated that even if a path is designed for something other than recreational purposes, if it is ultimately used for recreational purposes, the immunity still applies. Additionally, trail immunity can be granted for both paved and unpaved trails.

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California JPIA