Public Trails in Ashland And Other Cities Across Oregon May Have To Close To Avoid Increasing Liability

ASHLAND, Ore. — Insuring many local governments in Oregon- including Bandon, City/County Insurance Services Oregon has recommended to their clients that they close trail systems.

While Bandon, Ashland, and other cities across the state wait for guidance from the state Legislature to decide whether to close trails to avoid potential liability that has arisen because of a recently decided court case, Bandon is considering whether to close its trails. City Attorney- Shala Kudlac, noted the precautionary advice from their insurers during a January 9 council. The trails under consideration are owned, improved, and maintained by the city.

Arising from a 2019 court case, the question of liability came to the fore when a woman named Nicole Fields fell while crossing a bridge owned by the City of Newport. She sued the city, which raised the defense of recreational immunity. As the law stands, protection is afforded to landowners who don’t charge a fee to access their property for activities like walking and hiking.

Intended as a means to encourage landholders to develop their property for public use, this section of the law only applies to land that is improved for recreational purposes. Should a visitor be injured accidentally while using the area for recreation, the owners aren’t liable for damages. The plaintiff in Fields v. City of Newport argued that she wasn’t using the bridge for recreation., and as a result 2023 Oregon’s Court of Appeals found in her favor in 2023.

A lobbyist with the League of Oregon Cities- Scott Winkels, believes the Newport case blows a pretty big hole in their understanding of what the city’s liability was before the ruling. With more weight on the mindset of the person using the land, the court’s decisions seems to defer less to the intent of the land owner.

Winkels questioned whether the example of a person walking a trail to get to work- meant for recreation, could be defined as recreation. He is hoping that the state Legislature will give guidance and clarify the issue at their next legislative session in February. Without resolution, more trails may close this summer.

Bandon isn’t alone, as cities across Oregon- faced with increasing levels of legal risk by accommodating recreation visitors, are meeting to debate drastic measures municipalities may have to implement. To date Waldport has closed the Waziyata Trail and Tillamook County closed the Tire and Short Beach trails in Oceanside. Ashland officials say that they are currently keeping the Southern Oregon town’s trail system open for now.



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