Arizona Supreme Court Considers Meaning of State Recreational Use Statute in Recent Premises Liability Case

The state law of Arizona allows someone injured on someone else’s property to file a civil negligence suit against the owner to recover for their injuries. These suits are referred to as premises liability suits. However, some individuals are granted immunity from these suits through Arizona’s recreational use statute, A.R.S. section 33-1551. This statute provides that “a public or private owner, easement holder, lessee, tenant, manager or occupant of premises is not liable to a recreational or educational user except on a showing that [they were] guilty of wilful, malicious or grossly negligent conduct that was a direct cause of the injury to the recreational or educational user.” This statute has been used by defendants in premises liability suits to get the suit against them dismissed. However, it is not totally clear who the statute applies to, and sometimes courts must determine whether a defendant falls into one of the groups granted immunity.

The Arizona Supreme Court recently considered the meaning of the term “manager” under the statute in a case brought against an amusement park operator. According to the court’s written opinion, the defendant had an agreement with the City of Phoenix to operate an amusement park known as Enchanted Island. Under this agreement, they also were allowed to use an unfenced area adjacent to Enchanted Island known as the “piñata area,” which they were responsible for maintaining. The plaintiff paid the defendant to host her child’s birthday party at Enchanted Island and brought a piñata to said party. The defendant directed her to the piñata area, but while walking through it, the plaintiff fell, breaking her ankle and injuring her arm. According to her, she fell because she stepped on a covered sprinkler-head divot, and the plaintiff then sued the defendant for premises liability. The defendant moved for summary judgment, claiming that A.R.S. section 33-1551 granted them recreational immunity. Both the trial court and the appellate court agreed, but the plaintiff appealed all the way to the Arizona Supreme Court.

In front of the Arizona Supreme Court, the case came down to whether or not the defendant was a “manager” of the piñata area at the time the plaintiff fell. The defendant asserted that because they maintained the area they were indeed a manager, but the court disagreed. Instead, the court found that in order to be a manager of an area, one has to be able to control the public’s access to the land. Because the defendant could not do so, but was only allowed to use it and in charge of maintaining it, they could not be considered a manager. As such, the court reversed the grant of summary judgment, allowing the plaintiff to move forward in her suit against the defendant.

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