Court of Appeals Expands Municipal Protection Conferred by Wisconsin’s Recreational Immunity Statute

Published by Laura E. Callan on

Wisconsin’s recreational immunity statute, Wis. Stat. § 895.52, provides municipalities with broad immunity from liability for injuries to any person engaged in recreational activities on municipal property. The statute sets forth a three-part definition of recreational activity. The first part of the section defines recreational activity as “any outdoor activity undertaken for the purpose of exercise, relaxation or pleasure, including practice or instruction in any such activity.” The second part of the statutory definition of recreational activity lists 29 specific activities denominated as recreational. The third part of the statutory definition broadly adds “and any other outdoor sport, game or educational activity.”

Wisconsin courts have wrestled with applying the recreational immunity statute to varied fact situations since its enactment. The line between recreational and non-recreational activities can be difficult to draw under Wis. Stat. § 895.52, and the issue has been litigated with some frequency, most recently in Wilmet v. Liberty Mutual Ins. Co., 2015AP2259 (Wis. Ct. App. Feb. 28, 2017). The case is of particular importance to municipalities, because the court construed the statute to broaden municipal recreational-related immunity.  

Mrs. Wilmet was at a city-owned and operated swimming pool to drop off her grandchildren. After dropping them off, she remained outside the premises, supervising her grandchildren from behind the fenced perimeter of the pool as they swam. Mrs. Wilmet’s grandson shouted to her that he was going to jump off the high dive. When Mrs. Wilmet observed there were no lifeguards in the area, she became concerned about her grandson’s safety and told her grandson to wait. She then entered the pool premises without paying the entry fee (but with the attendant’s permission), and went immediately from the entrance through the locker room and toward the high dive. Mrs. Wilmet did not plan to swim at the pool or stay on the premises following her grandson’s dive. As she walked toward the high dive, she tripped on a cement doorstop and was injured.

The Wilmets sued the municipality and its insurer. The city invoked the recreational immunity statute as an affirmative defense and sought the action’s dismissal on that basis.  The city argued that Mrs. Wilmet’s activity of supervising her grandson, who was himself engaged in a recreational activity, was sufficient to bring the Wilmets’ claims within the ambit of the recreational immunity statute.  The court of appeals agreed, basing its holding on principles of statutory interpretation and previously developed tests under which courts consider, among other factors, whether the activity in question was undertaken in circumstances substantially similar to the circumstances of recreational activities set forth in the statute.

The court reasoned that supervising other persons, who are themselves engaged in recreational activities, involves actively overseeing or directing the performance of the recreational activity of another. Thus, the court concluded, “supervision” was akin to, and subsumed within, “practice” and “instruction” in a recreational activity, which the legislature specifically identified as giving rise to immunity. In addition, the court found that conferring recreational immunity for supervision is consistent with the legislature’s purpose in enacting the recreational immunity statute. Because it was undisputed that Mrs. Wilmet was supervising her grandson’s recreational activity on the city’s pool grounds at the time of her injury, the city was entitled to immunity under § 895.52 from her claims.

For more information about statutory exceptions to recreational immunity and case law interpretations of the recreational immunity statute that might expose a municipality to potential liability, contact any member of Stafford Rosenbaum LLP Government Team.

Filed Under: municipal law, appeals, municipalities

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