Crogan v. Pine Bluff Estates, 20-247

Docket NºNo. 20-247
Citation257 A.3d 247
Case DateJune 11, 2021
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Vermont

257 A.3d 247

Cameron CROGAN
v.
PINE BLUFF ESTATES et al.

No. 20-247

Supreme Court of Vermont.

April Term, 2021
June 11, 2021


Bridget C. Asay of Stris & Maher LLP, Montpelier, and Gregory P. Howe, Law Office of Gregory P. Howe, Newport, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

Stephen D. Ellis and Pamela L.P. Eaton of Paul Frank + Collins P.C., Burlington, for Defendant-Appellee Douglas B. Spates, in His Individual Capacity.

Adrienne Shea and Pietro J. Lynn of Lynn, Lynn, Blackman & Manitsky, P.C., Burlington, for Defendants-Appellees.

PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Robinson, Eaton, Carroll and Cohen, JJ.

EATON, J.

¶ 1. Plaintiff was seriously injured when he rode his motorbike into a cable strung across a beach access road at the lakeside residential development where he lived with his family. As a result, his mother filed a negligence action against several entities related to the development, including the homeowners’ association and a separately formed beach association, as well as certain individuals in both their individual and representative capacities.1 The civil division granted defendants’ motions for summary judgment primarily on the grounds that, given the undisputed facts of this case, Vermont's Recreational Use Statute protected them from liability, and the individual defendants did not owe plaintiff a duty of care in connection with the accident that led to this lawsuit. We conclude that the individual defendants were entitled to summary judgment, but we reverse the trial court's determination that the Recreational Use Statute is applicable in this case. Accordingly, we remand the matter for further proceedings concerning plaintiff's claims against the nonindividual defendants.

¶ 2. Applying the same standard as the trial court in reviewing defendants’ motions for summary judgment, we must determine whether material facts are in dispute and, if not, whether the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Nolan v. Fishman, 2019 VT 63, ¶ 11, 211 Vt. 1, 218 A.3d 1034. Issues of statutory interpretation raise questions of law that we review without deference to the trial court. Id. In construing a statute, our paramount goal is to discern the Legislature's intent, first by examining the plain meaning of the statute and, if necessary, "by considering the entire statute, including its subject matter, effects and consequences, as well as the reason and spirit of the law." Athens Sch. Dist. v. Vt. State Bd. of Educ., 2020 VT 52, ¶ 19, 212 Vt. ––––, 237 A.3d 671 (quotation omitted).

I. Facts and Procedural History

¶ 3. The material facts are undisputed. At the time of the accident, plaintiff's family owned a home and resided in Pine Bluff Estates, a lakeside residential development adjoining Lake Memphremagog in Newport, Vermont. The development was created by a partnership, defendant Pine Bluff Estates Partnership, which was formed by defendants Douglas Spates, Rosemary Lalime, and William Boyd Davies

257 A.3d 250

in the late 1980s for the purpose of developing land. The still-active partnership owns ten or so lots of the approximately seventy-five lots created in the Pine Bluff Estates development.

¶ 4. Defendant Pine Bluff Estates Beach Association is a nonprofit corporation that owns the common areas within the development, including the lakeshore beach and the one-lane, unpaved beach access road on which plaintiff was injured. Spates, Lalime, and Davies do not personally own property or reside in Pine Bluff Estates, but they remain as president, secretary, and treasurer, respectively, of the Association and make up its board of directors.

¶ 5. Anyone who owns property in the development is automatically a member of the Association, which collects an annual assessment from its members for taxes, insurance, and maintenance of the common areas. Use of the common areas, including the beach and the access road, is restricted to unit owners and their tenants, guests, invitees, and licensees. All residents are required to pay the assessment, irrespective of the extent to which they use the common areas. The Association has the right to suspend or limit any resident's use of the beach and access road for failure to observe the rules and regulations concerning the common areas. Residents who are prohibited from using any element of the common areas are still required to pay the full assessment.

¶ 6. At some point before 2006, two posts connected by a chain were installed on the beach access road to keep the general public from accessing the lake and partying on the beach. Apparently, the posts and chain were erected informally by one or more of the unit owners.

¶ 7. In 2006, the Association created a Beach Committee as part of the process established for the unit owners to take over the Association and the Partnership that created it. In 2006-2007, there were improvements to the beach access road. Minutes from a 2007 Association meeting indicate that the Beach Committee was to work out details regarding installing gates or resetting the posts and chain after completion of some construction work. There was no formal approval of, or payment for, any action in this regard.

¶ 8. When plaintiff moved into Pine Bluff Estates with his family in 2008, he was aware that there was a chain that could be pulled across the access road and affixed to posts to block traffic. He and his family often went to the beach using the beach road on which the posts and chain were located.

¶ 9. On June 3, 2015, plaintiff rode his motorbike up and down the access road several times. After several trips up and down the road, he saw a vehicle approaching him on the road from the direction of the beach, at which point he drove away, only to return shortly thereafter. On his final trip down, he did not see, until the last moment, that someone had strung the chain across the road and affixed it to the posts. He braked and slid along the ground before striking the chain across his throat, which caused serious injury.

¶ 10. In June 2018, plaintiff filed a negligence action against, among others, the Pine Bluff Estates Partnership, the Meadows Edge at Pine Bluff Estates Association, and the Pine Bluff Estates Beach Association, as well as Spates, Lalime, and Davies, in their individual and representative capacities. Defendants moved for summary judgment, primarily on the grounds that they owed no duty of care to plaintiff and that Vermont's Recreational Use Statute precluded liability for plaintiff's injuries. Spates filed a separate motion for summary judgment, contending that he owed no duty of care to plaintiff.

257 A.3d 251

¶ 11. In an August 2020 decision, following discovery, the trial court granted both motions for summary judgment. The court construed Vermont's Recreational Use Statute to preclude any liability on the part of the corporate defendants, as well as any defendants who owned property in Pine Bluff Estates. The court further concluded that none of the individual defendants, including Spates, owed plaintiff a duty of care in connection with the accident in which he was injured.

¶ 12. On appeal, plaintiff argues that: (1) the Recreational Use Statute does not apply to private, restricted areas of a residential development that are reserved for the exclusive use of residents and their guests; and (2) the trial court erred in granting summary judgment to the individual defendants because the record was sufficient for a jury to find liability.

II. The Recreational Use Statute

¶ 13. The Recreational Use Statute, which became law in 1998, was enacted with the express purpose of

encourag[ing] owners to make their land and water available to the public for no consideration for recreational uses by clearly establishing a rule that an owner shall have no greater duty of care to a person who, without compensation, enters or goes upon the owner's land for a recreational use than the owner would have to a trespasser.

1997, No. 110 (Adj. Sess.), § 1 (emphasis added); 12 V.S.A. § 5791 (emphasis added). Towards that end, a landowner "shall not be liable for property damage or personal injury sustained by a person who, without consideration, enters or goes upon the owner's land for a recreational use unless the damage or injury is the result of the willful or wanton misconduct of the owner." 12 V.S.A. § 5793(a) (emphasis added).

¶ 14. Vermont was one of the last states to enact a recreational use statute limiting landowner liability after the Council of State Governments drafted a model act in 1965 "in response to a growing trend among states to limit the common-law liability of owners who made their land available to the public for recreational purposes." See Martinez v. Ross, 245 Md.App. 581, 227 A.3d 667, 673 (2020) (citing 24 Council of State Governments, Suggested State Legislation, Public Recreation on Private Lands: Limitations on Liability 150 (1965)). The Council explained in the preamble to the model act that it is unreasonable to expect "private owners [who] are willing to make their land available to members of the general public without charge" to undertake "the risks of liability for injury to ... strangers from whom the accommodating owner receives no compensation or other favor in return." 24 Council of State Governments, supra, pmbl.

¶ 15. Here,...

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2 practice notes
  • Hoffmann v. Young, S266003
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (California)
    • 29 Agosto 2022
    ...Estate of Gordon-Couture v. Brown (2005) 152 N.H. 265; Bucki v. Hawkins (R.I. 2007) 914 A.2d 491; Crogan v. Pine Bluff Estates (Vt. 2021) 257 A.3d 247. --------- ...
  • In re Appeal T.O., 20-302
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • 11 Junio 2021
    ...relatives from a list of necessary parties to the hearing and then grant them the ability to overturn the results of that hearing in 257 A.3d 247 another forum. The Legislature does not draft so cryptically. ¶ 18. Petitioners next argue that the denial of a hearing before the Human Services......
2 cases
  • Hoffmann v. Young, S266003
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (California)
    • 29 Agosto 2022
    ...Estate of Gordon-Couture v. Brown (2005) 152 N.H. 265; Bucki v. Hawkins (R.I. 2007) 914 A.2d 491; Crogan v. Pine Bluff Estates (Vt. 2021) 257 A.3d 247. --------- ...
  • In re Appeal T.O., 20-302
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • 11 Junio 2021
    ...relatives from a list of necessary parties to the hearing and then grant them the ability to overturn the results of that hearing in 257 A.3d 247 another forum. The Legislature does not draft so cryptically. ¶ 18. Petitioners next argue that the denial of a hearing before the Human Services......

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