Johnson v. Sunshine Min. Co., Inc.

Decision Date14 June 1984
Docket NumberNo. 14786,14786
PartiesMelessa JOHNSON, Individually for herself and as an heir to the Estate of her deceased husband, James L. Johnson, also as personal representative for the Estate of James L. Johnson, Melessa Johnson, as guardian and mother of Christopher Johnson, natural child of Melessa Johnson and the deceased James L. Johnson, Melessa Johnson, as guardian and mother of Kevin Johnson, natural child of Melessa Johnson and the deceased James L. Johnson, Christopher Johnson and Kevin Johnson, individually for themselves, as children of the deceased James L. Johnson and heirs to his Estate, Plaintiff-appellants, v. SUNSHINE MINING CO., INC., a Delaware corporation doing business within the State of Idaho, Defendant-respondent.
CourtIdaho Supreme Court

Nick Chenoweth, Orofino, Steven H. Sackmann, Othello, Wash., for plaintiffs-appellants.

James P. Keane and Charles L.A. Cox, of Brown, Keane, Boyd & Gibler, Kellogg, for defendant-respondent.

BAKES, Justice.

This case presents questions of the applicability and the constitutionality of I.C. § 36-1604 which grants a limitation on a landowner's liability to gratuitous recreational users of his property. Summary judgment was granted to defendant Sunshine Mining Company on the record which consists of the pleadings and affidavits. Viewed most favorably to the plaintiffs, the record in this case presents the following facts.

In 1946-47, Sunshine Mining Company constructed a built-up dike near the border of a section of its property, known as a "stull yard." The yard is used for timber preparation and a staging area to the mine. The purpose of the dike was to control flooding of the nearby Big Creek, although a portion of a fork in the dike, in the northwest corner of the stull yard, was once used for unloading logging trucks. This portion of the dike had not been used by Sunshine since the early 1960's. Several affiants testified of playing and riding motorcycles in the stull yard and on the dike from 1962 to 1980. According to the affidavits, Sunshine's employees were aware of the recreational use of Sunshine's property and did not ask the affiants to leave. On one occasion in 1972 an employee of Sunshine told one affiant that he could play and ride a motorcycle in the stull yard. 1 Sunshine never received any consideration for the recreational use of the stull yard.

In the fall of 1979, Sunshine excavated some of the fill material from the portion of the dike on the fork which had once been used for unloading logging trucks. The fill material contained sufficient mineralization to merit mixing and processing it with other ore. The excavation process was halted in the winter and was not resumed in the spring of 1980 because of a strike by Sunshine's employees. The excavation left a ravine in the dike approximately fifteen feet deep and twenty-five feet to the other side.

On May 26, 1980, James Johnson was visited by a friend sporting a new three-wheel cycle. Johnson, riding his own motorcycle, accompanied the friend in trying out the new cycle. The two entered the stull yard on the north side, rode along the dike, and turned onto the fork of the dike heading toward the excavation. Johnson had previously ridden this route several times. Johnson was in the lead, traveling twenty to thirty miles per hour. Some brush and a slight rise in the dike obscured the view of the ravine until approximately eight to ten feet from the edge. Johnson fell into the ravine with his motorcycle, receiving injuries which caused his death several months later.

Johnson's estate and heirs, plaintiff appellants, sued Sunshine for wrongful death. The district court granted summary judgment to Sunshine, ruling that I.C. § 36-1604 was constitutional, and based upon it there was no duty of care on the part of Sunshine either to warn of or refrain from creating a dangerous condition on its property. On appeal, Johnsons argue that I.C. § 36-1604 is inapplicable to the facts, and further that it is unconstitutional.

Appellants first argue that I.C. § 36-1604 does not apply to these facts. The statute provides in part:

36-1604. Limitation of liability of landowner.--...


(c) Owner Exempt from Warning. An owner of land owes no duty of care to keep the premises safe for entry by others for recreational purposes, or to give any warning of a dangerous condition, use, structure, or activity on such premises to persons entering for such purposes."

There is no dispute that the dike is "land" or that Sunshine is the "owner" within the statute's definitions. Appellants contend that motorcycling is not within the definition of "recreational purposes" as it was defined at the time of the accident:

36-1604. Limitation of liability of landowner.--...

"(b) Definitions. As used in this section:


"3. 'Recreational Purposes' includes, but is not limited to, any of the following or any combination thereof: Hunting, fishing, swimming, boating, camping, picnicking, hiking, pleasure driving, nature study, water skiing, winter sports, and viewing or enjoying historical, archeological, scenic, or scientific sites, when done without charge of the owner."

The statutory language employed by the legislature, i.e., "includes, but is not limited to," makes it quite clear that the list was not intended to be exhaustive. Motorcycling for pleasure is sufficiently similar to the activities listed to be included. The uncontradicted affidavit of Johnson's companion states, "On the date of James Johnson's accident, May 26, 1980, Mr. Johnson and I were pleasure riding our cycles for recreational purposes only .... Neither Mr. Johnson or I paid any consideration to anyone for the right to ride our cycles ...." We conclude that Johnson's activities were "recreational purposes" within the meaning of the statute.

Appellants next argue that the statute is ambiguous, and that it should be construed as applying only to "passive" negligence and not "active" negligence, such as Sunshine's act of creating the cut in the dike. We find no ambiguity in the statute, nor any basis for distinguishing between so-called "active" and "passive" negligence. The statute specifically provides that "[a]n owner of land owes no duty of care to keep the premises safe for entry by others for recreational purposes or to give any warning of a dangerous condition, use, structure, or activity on such premises to persons entering for such purposes." The statute, after first stating that the owner owes no duty of care to a person entering for recreational purposes, then refers to both use and activity, neither of which could exist without the owner taking some affirmative or active steps. Accordingly, there is no basis for arguing that the statute distinguishes between active or passive conduct. 2

Appellants next contend that I.C. § 36-1604 violates the equal protection clause of the fourteenth amendment to the United States Constitution and analogous provisions in the Idaho Constitution because it creates two classes of persons, non-paying recreational users of another's land and all other persons using the land of another. 3

An equal protection analysis first requires a determination of the standard of review. Idaho recognizes three possible standards of review, (1) "strict scrutiny," (2) "means-focus," and (3) the "rational basis" tests. E.g. Leliefeld v. Johnson, 104 Idaho 357, 659 P.2d 111 (1983); Twin Falls Clinic & Hospital Bldg. Corp. v. Hamill, 103 Idaho 19, 644 P.2d 341 (1982); Jones v. State Board of Medicine, 97 Idaho 859, 555 P.2d 399 (1976). The classification in this case is not based on a "suspect" classification such as race or religion, nor does it involve a "fundamental right" which is expressly guaranteed or within the penumbra of the Constitution, i.e., freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of movement, right to privacy, etc. Accordingly, the "strict scrutiny" standard is inapplicable. 4

The "means-focus" test is applicable only if

"the discriminatory character of a challenged statutory classification is apparent on its face and where there is also a patent indication of a lack of relationship between the classification and the declared purpose of the statute ...." Leliefeld v. Johnson, 104 Idaho at 373, 659 P.2d at 127.

There is no patent indication of a lack of relationship between the classification and the declared purpose. Therefore, the means-focus test is inapplicable. Leliefeld v. Johnson, supra.

The appropriate test to review a statute such as this is the rational basis test, which requires only that the statute "advances legitimate legislative goals in a rational fashion." Leliefeld v. Johnson, 104 Idaho at 374, 659 P.2d at 128. The encouragement of recreation enhances the physical well-being of Idaho's people, has a positive effect on Idaho's economy, and is a legitimate legislative goal. The legislature has stated in I.C. § 36-1604(a) that "the purpose of this section is to encourage owners of land to make private land and water areas available to the public without charge for recreational purposes by limiting their liability toward persons entering thereon for such purposes." It is rational for the legislature to conclude that a limit on the landowner's liability exposure to non-paying recreational users has an influence on that landowner's decision not to exclude recreational users from his land. Subsection (d) of the statute invites that result by providing that:

"36-1604. Limitation of liability of landowner.--...


"(d) Owner Assumes No liability. An owner of land who either directly or indirectly invites or permits without charge any person to use such property for recreational purposes does not thereby:

"1. Extend any assurance that the premises are safe for any purpose.

"2. Confer upon such person the legal status of an invitee or licensee to whom a duty of care is owned.

"3. Assume responsibility for or incur liability for any injury to...

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