Property Owner is Not Liable for Injuries to Dirt Bike Rider Who Did Not Have Permission to Ride on the Property

Callahan v. Tri-Borough Sand & Stone, ___ N.J. Super. ___ (App. Div. 2024). N.J.S.A. 39:3C-18 addresses the liability of property owners when certain types of vehicles are operated on their property. Until this decision by Judge Rose, there was no authority applying that statute, as Judge Rose observed that “[t]he parties cite no authority under N.J.S.A. 39:3C-18 to substantiate their claims, nor has our research revealed any such authority.” Instead, the parties relied on the Landowner’s Liability Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:42A-1 et seq. (“the LLA”), and caselaw thereunder. “Because the statutes are similar,” the Appellate Division did so too.

“In essence, the LLA was intended to shield from liability private owners of rural or semi-rural lands used by the public for sport and recreational activities. See Harrison v. Middlesex Water Co., 80 N.J. 391, 399-401 (1979). Thus, such landowners ‘owe[] no duty to keep the premises safe for entry or use by others for sport and recreational activities.’ N.J.S.A. 2A:42A-3(a). Nor must they ‘give warning of any hazardous condition of the land or in connection with the use of any structure or by reason of any activity on such premises to persons entering for such purposes.’ Ibid. Unlike N.J.S.A. 39:3C-18, immunity applies, even if the owner expressly permits entry by the public. N.J.S.A. 2A:42A-3(b). [But s]imilar to Chapter 3C, the LLA does not shield landowners from liability for certain willful or malicious acts or where the owners gave permission to use the premises.”

Plaintiff was riding his dirt bike on defendants’ property, a quarry, when he struck a steel cable and sustained injuries. The cable was part of a dredging process that was integral to defendants’ business on the property. There was no dispute that the cable was not present to deter trespassing or that defendants never gave express permission for anyone to ride dirt bikes on the property, though there was evidence, including from plaintiff’s mother, that she and others had been riding all terrain vehicles on the property since the 1990s. The Law Division granted a defense motion for summary judgment, plaintiff appealed, and the Appellate Division affirmed, applying de novo review.

Judge Rose discussed two decisions under the LLA that involved somewhat similar facts. In one case, where a cable had been deliberately placed across a path used by motorbikes, a use known by the defendants property owner there, the Appellate Division sustained the denial of a defense motion for summary judgment. In another case, where a cable was directly related to the owner’s use of its property and there was no evidence that the cable was erected willfully or maliciously, the owner was shielded from liability.

The Appellate Division found that the latter case supported the result in the present matter. There was nothing willful or malicious here, as “defendants utilized the cable for a legitimate business purpose – not to deter the presence of dirt bike riders on their property.” And plaintiff did not have express consent to ride his dirt bike on defendants’ property. For those reasons, defendants could not be held liable under N.J.S.A. 39:3C-18.