Harrisburg – For three consecutive legislative sessions, Rep. Dan Moul (R-Adams) has been fighting an uphill battle for his House Bill 544. Tuesday, that effort was reignited by the legislation clearing the House Tourism and Recreational Development Committee along a party-line vote.
The bill is aimed at increasing recreational activities on private land by expanding the current Recreational Use of Land and Water Act – a law limiting liability for private landowners who open up their land to certain recreational uses free of charge – by covering improvements on the land and opening up the land to, according to the legislation’s cosponsorship memo, "all recreational activities undertaken for exercise, education and pleasure, including snowmobiling and ATV and motorcycle riding."
Additionally, the bill changes the current way in which attorney’s fees are awarded in these cases by requiring plaintiffs to pay the landowner’s attorney’s fees should the landowner prevail in a lawsuit brought by a user of their land.
The bill – amended on the Floor – cleared the House of Representatives last session with only two negative votes. It was never brought up for a vote in the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee.
That amended version of the bill is what committee members were tasked with addressing in Tuesday’s committee meeting.
According to Moul, more than 30 statewide organizations support the legislation, but it continues to be opposed by the Pennsylvania Association for Justice, which has lobbied against the bill since its first being introduced in 2013.
“If you open your land free of charge for someone to come in and recreate on your land, and they get themselves hurt by their own volition, if they sue you and they lose, they pay your legal fees,” Rep. Moul said of the need for his legislation.
The bill was not without debate in committee.
Committee Minority Chairman Mark Longietti (D-Mercer) noted that while he supports the aim of opening up more land for recreational use, the bill causes concern for him due to the inclusion of improvements on the land in the higher negligence standard with no duty to warn land users of any dangerous condition.
“I think what’s going to happen is that one of these days, someone is going to get seriously injured and society is going to cry, ‘How can this happen? How can we allow no liability when it comes to that kind of improvement?’,” he said.
Additionally, he said, the way attorney’s fees are awarded in the bill – something he characterized as “one-way loser pays” – would freeze out potential plaintiffs from bringing an otherwise meritorious claim against a landowner due to the cost-benefit analysis of bringing these difficult claims, compared to the possibility of having to pay the landowner’s attorney’s fees should they lose.
According to Moul, it’s that type of analysis he is hoping would occur should the legislation become law in order to help weed out frivolous lawsuits.
“I need to stop the (lawsuit) fishing so that people can open up their land without worry about being sued for somebody for tripping over a rock because they were clumsy,” he said. “That is what this is all about: It’s not to try and protect people who do heinous things; it’s about opening up land.”
Jason Gottesman is the Harrisburg bureau chief for The PLS Reporter, a non-partisan, online news site devoted to covering Pennsylvania government.