Texas Supreme Court holds recreational use statute does not cover spectators, only participants

UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT ARLINGTON v. SANDRA WILLIAMS AND STEVE WILLIAMS, 13-0338 (Tex. March 20, 2015)

This is a recreational use statute case where the question is whether the statute’s recreational-activity list reasonably includes a spectator at a competitive-sports event. See TEX.CIV. PRAC.&REM.CODE §§ 75.001- .007 (West 2013). The Texas Supreme Court held it does not.

Sandra Williams and her husband sued the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) for injuries Williams sustained when she fell at Maverick Stadium while attending their daughter’s high school soccer game. Sandra Williams walked down the stairs stopping at a guard rail. The lower stairs were not extended but the step-off was closed off by a gate.  Williams leaned against the gate and, even though secured with a chain and padlock, it opened.  Williams fell five feet injuring her rib and left arm.  She sued the UTA for premise defect and gross negligence. UTA filed a plea to the jurisdiction asserting sovereign immunity and the bar under the recreational use statute. Williams argued that the recreational use statute did not apply because she was not engaged in a recreational activity at the time of the accident. The trial court denied the plea and the court of appeals affirmed. UTA appealed to the Supreme Court.

The recreational use statute protects landowners who open property for recreational purposes, limiting their liability to the recreational user by elevating the standard.  However, only certain recreational activities are included.  The court framed the issue as a difference between someone engaging in the recreational activity (such as the soccer player) and one who merely watches.  After going through statutory construction principles, the court held the recreational use “list” in the statute is not exhaustive, but is limited to those who participate in the recreational use, not those who merely observe others participating. This is not withstanding subpart (L) noting the statute applies to enjoyment of the outdoors in general.  The statutory term “has remained more specific than the word’s ordinary meaning” and therefore is limited to participants.  The dissent asserted the amendments expanded the list to spectator activities but the majority utilized statutory construction principles as well as similar statutes from other states as a means to disagree. Justice Guzman agreed in the judgment but her reasoning was that leaning against the gate after the game while filling out a form needed to leave the stadium with her child was not even spectating and therefore not a recreational use under any definition. Justice Boyd concurred by first citing the legend of Midas who secured his father’s ox cart to a hitching post in ancient Phrygia using a knot that only the future king of all of Asia could untie.  He then concurs in the result, but writes separately to emphasize that the plurality’s opinion suggests a bright line rule, which cannot be the case. He is not prepared to say that spectators or other activities not listed in the statute can “never” be considered as a covered recreational use.  But he does agree this one does not qualify.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Justice Guzman delivered a concurring opinion, in which Justice Willett joined. Justice Boyd delivered a concurring opinion.  Justice Johnson delivered an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which Justice Brown joined. The docket page with attorneys listed can be found here.