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Texas Supreme Court Decides Recreational Use Statute Does Not Apply to Watching Sports Matches

In the recent case of University of Texas at Arlington v. Sandra Williams, the Texas Supreme Court considered whether the recreational use statute applies to those watching sports matches. The statute (Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code section 75.001) protects landowners from run-of-the-mill negligence claims when they allow their property to be used for public recreation. However the protection only covers specific, defined recreational uses. Under the recreational use statute, plaintiffs suing landowners to whom the statute applies must prove gross negligence, malicious intent, or bad faith.

The court of appeals had determined that those watching sports matches were not doing an activity similar enough to the listed recreational uses, and it held that watching sports was not “recreation” under the statute. The defendant university asked the Texas Supreme Court to review.

The case arose when a woman and her husband sued the university for injuries the woman suffered when she fell at a university stadium. The couple was there to watch their teenage daughter’s soccer game. When the game was over, the woman went down the stairs to wait for her daughter. She stopped at an elevation, near a guardrail that separated the stands from the field. The gate’s latch had previously broken, but it was held shut with a padlock and chain. She leaned against the gate and it opened. She fell five feet to the field and hurt her rib and arm.

The woman sued the university for negligence and gross negligence in using a chain that it knew was inadequate and failing to repair the original latch. The university moved to dismiss the case, claiming protection under the recreational use statute, among other things. The plaintiff argued that the statute didn’t apply because she wasn’t engaged in an enumerated recreational activity when the accident happened. She also argued that even if it did apply, the motion should be denied because she raised a factual issue about the university’s gross negligence.

The trial court denied the university’s motion, and the court of appeals affirmed. The university argued that the appellate court’s decision conflicted with a prior decision where the statute had barred a claim of someone using playground equipment at a municipal park. The Court explained that the statute protected landowners who opened property for recreational uses, such as fishing, hunting, boating, off-roading, caving, walking dogs enjoying nature, and bicycling. In the earlier case, the Court had not considered whether “recreation” includes competitive sports and those watching sports, although it had relied on the list of those activities associated with enjoying nature. It had focused on the plaintiff’s use of a swing set.

The university argued that going to a soccer game is also an activity related to enjoying nature or the outdoors. The plaintiff argued that the meaning of that listed activity was to be read in the context of the other listed activities, none of which were similar to watching competitive sports at a multipurpose stadium.

The Court explained that ejusdem generis is a principle of statutory construction that provides general terms should be limited to matters that are similar in type to those that are specifically listed. The Court explained that the context of the listed general activity was fundamental to understanding what the general term covered. “Recreation” under the statute was more specific than the word’s usual meaning, which would include competitive sports. It explained that, while soccer can be played in an open-air stadium, it’s not associated with nature in the sense indicated by the other listed terms. The Court affirmed the appellate court’s denial of the university’s motion to dismiss.

If you are hurt while watching sports or doing another activity on somebody else’s property, you should retain an experienced attorney. Premises liability cases can present special challenges for plaintiffs. The experienced San Antonio premises liability attorneys at Carabin Shaw may be able to help you. Call our office for more information at 1-800-862-1260.

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