Municipality Not Liable in Recreational Trail Case

Recently the Ontario Courts found a municipality not liable, under section 4(1) of the Occupier’s Liability Act, for the plaintiff’s fall off the edge of a ravine. In coming to this finding the court took an expansive view of when this section applied and indicated what is required to meet the lower standard of care under this section.

In Pierce v. Hamilton(City)2013 ONSC 6485 (S.C.J.), the plaintiff entered the park on a marked recreational trail near the edge of the Niagara Escarpment, he then left the trail and proceeded on an unmarked dirt path and fell off the edge of the ravine sustaining physical injuries. The City of Hamilton acknowledged that they were the occupier of the premises, but asserted they had met the standard of care.  The trail itself qualified as a recreational trail and was clearly marked as such, but the issue was whether the dirt path also qualified.  The Court held that the standard of care was the same as if the plaintiff was on a marked trail, stating:

“If that owner is given the benefit of the lower standard of care in return for allowing the public to enjoy the recreational trail on the land, it makes no sense to saddle the owner with the higher standard of care the moment a hiker or cyclist or skier moves off of the recreational trail. Further, it makes no sense for two different standards of care to alternately apply as a trail user hops on and off of the recreational trail.”

Given this, the plaintiff was deemed to have willingly assumed all risks associated with the premises and the lesser standard set out in section 4(1) of the Occupier’s Liability Act applied.

The Court accepted the evidence of the representative of the City that they had not received any previous complaints of people falling into the ravine and thus had no information that would suggest there was an unusual danger on any dirt path in the park area.   Justice Henderson rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the City failed to meet the standard of care for failing to conduct inspections of the park, for failing to have warning signs and for failing to construct a protective fence.  Justice Henderson held that it would be impossible for the City to conduct regular inspections of the 3,000 acres of natural areas. Regarding the signage and fencing, the Court held:

“As to signage, clearly a specific warning sign was not warranted if the City was not aware of any specific danger... I find that the failure of the City to erect a more general warning sign, such as "Caution. Uneven Ground in the Woods" does not constitute a breach of its duty. Such a warning sign would in fact be a sign stating the obvious; that is, that the terrain in the woods is uneven and unpredictable... I also reject the plaintiffs' submissions that the City ought to have built a barricade or a fence near the drop-off into the ravine. The danger of a sharp drop in elevation in a wooded area that was near the edge of an escarpment should be obvious to anyone who entered the woods.”

This case builds on the Ontario Court of Appeal decision in the Schneider v. St. Clair Region Conservation Authority case regarding when section 4(1) applies and highlights the lower standard of care under this section.

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