Meyer v. School District of Colby

Decision Date20 August 1998
Docket NumberNo. 98-0482,98-0482
Citation585 N.W.2d 690,221 Wis.2d 513
Parties, 130 Ed. Law Rep. 258 Diane MEYER, Plaintiff-Appellant, d v. SCHOOL DISTRICT OF COLBY, Wausau Underwriters Insurance Company, and Security Health Plan of Wisconsin, Inc., Defendants-Respondents.
CourtWisconsin Court of Appeals

Before VERGERONT, ROGGENSACK and DEININGER, JJ.

DEININGER, Judge.

Diane Meyer appeals an order for summary judgment in favor of the School District of Colby which dismissed her suit for damages resulting from personal injuries she sustained while watching a football game on school property. Meyer contends that the trial court erred in holding the District immune from liability under § 895.52, STATS., Wisconsin's recreational immunity statute. Because we conclude that the District is immune under the statute from liability for Meyer's injuries, we affirm the order granting summary judgment.

BACKGROUND

The facts relevant to the recreational immunity issue are straightforward and not in dispute. Meyer watched her son's freshman football game from bleachers adjacent to the football field at Colby High School. The football field and the bleachers are on property owned by the District. The District charges no admission fee for spectators at freshman football games. Meyer claims that, as she descended the bleachers after the game, a portion of the bleachers broke, causing her to fall and sustain injuries.

Meyer sued the District, alleging that her injuries were caused by its negligence. The District moved for summary judgment, claiming it was immune from liability under § 895.52, STATS. 1 The trial court granted summary judgment, and Meyer appeals.

ANALYSIS

We review a trial court's grant of summary judgment using the same methodology as the trial court. See M & I First Nat'l Bank v. Episcopal Homes Management, Inc., 195 Wis.2d 485, 496, 536 N.W.2d 175, 182 (Ct.App.1995). That methodology is well known, and we need not repeat it here except to observe that summary judgment is appropriate when there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See id. at 496-97, 536 N.W.2d at 182; see also § 802.08(2), STATS. Wisconsin's recreational immunity statute generally provides immunity to property owners from liability for injuries to persons engaging in recreational activities on the owner's property, unless the owner derives more than minimal monetary benefit from the recreational activity or maliciously fails to warn against unsafe conditions on the property. See § 895.52, STATS. This immunity applies to governmental entities as well as to private property owners. See § 895.52(1)(a) and (d). The statute broadly defines "recreational activity" as "any outdoor activity undertaken for the purpose of exercise, relaxation or pleasure, including practice or instruction in any such activity." Section 895.52(1)(g). 2 The definition also provides a non-exclusive list of twenty-eight exemplary recreational activities, and it explicitly includes "any other outdoor sport, game or educational activity." See id. The broad statutory definition of "recreational activity" also contains an exception, however: " 'recreational activity' ... does not include any organized team sport activity sponsored by the owner of the property on which the activity takes place." Id.

The parties do not dispute that the freshman football game Meyer attended as a spectator was an organized team sport activity, or that the school district was the sponsor of the activity and the owner of the land on which the game took place. Accordingly, the District, as sponsor-landowner, is not immune from liability for injuries sustained by participants in the game itself. See Kloes v. Eau Claire Cavalier Baseball Ass'n, Inc., 170 Wis.2d 77, 85, 487 N.W.2d 77, 80 (Ct.App.1992). The District did not charge an admission fee for spectators at the football game, and Meyer does not allege that the school district acted maliciously in failing to maintain the bleachers or warn of their unsafe condition, circumstances which would deprive the District of immunity under § 895.52(4)(a) and (b), STATS.

Thus, the sole issue in this appeal is whether the exception in the statutory definition of recreational activity for "any organized team sport activity sponsored by the owner of the property on which the activity takes place" extends to the spectators, and not just the participants, at such an event. This question requires that we interpret § 895.52, STATS. Statutory interpretation is a question of law which we decide de novo. See Stockbridge Sch. Dist. v. DPI, 202 Wis.2d 214, 219, 550 N.W.2d 96, 98 (1996). The main goal of statutory interpretation is to discern the intent of the legislature. See Anderson v. City of Milwaukee, 208 Wis.2d 18, 25-26, 559 N.W.2d 563, 566 (1997) (citations omitted). We first look to the plain language of the statute. See id. If the plain language is ambiguous, we turn to extrinsic aids such as the legislative history, scope, context and purpose of the statute to determine legislative intent. See id.

The plain language of paragraph (1)(g) does not indicate whether the exception for an organized team sport activity extends to spectators. By its terms, paragraph (1)(g) does not limit the exception only to participants in organized team sport activities, but neither does it explicitly include spectators at such activities. The District argues that we must infer from the language of § 895.52(4)(a), STATS., which explicitly refers to spectators, that the organized team sport activity exception in paragraph (1)(g) does not apply to spectators. We do not accept the District's argument on this point.

Under paragraph (4)(a), immunity does not extend to liability for "death or injury that occurs on property of which a governmental body is the owner at any event for which the owner charges an admission fee for spectators."

Thus, had the District charged Meyer an admission fee to watch her son's football game, the District would presumably not be immune under the [221 Wis.2d 519] statute from liability for her injuries. The District argues that since it charged no admission fee, we must construe paragraphs (1)(g) and (4)(a) together and conclude that its immunity is preserved. We need not necessarily infer from the existence of paragraph (4)(a), however, that the team sport exception in (1)(g) does not also apply to spectators at organized team sport activities, even when no admission fee is charged for spectators. The legislature has provided two separate exceptions in two different paragraphs of the statute, one for organized team sport activities, and one for events at which the owner charges an admission fee for spectators.

The two exceptions overlap when an admission fee is charged for spectators at team sport activities, such as when a school district charges an admission fee for spectators at varsity football games. But these exceptions also apply independently. The exception for events at which a governmental property owner charges an admission fee for spectators applies even when the event in question is not an organized team sport activity. For example, had Meyer been injured on the bleachers while attending a high school band concert for which the District charged spectators an admission fee, it would not be immune, even though no organized team sport activity was involved. Likewise, the organized team sport activity exception applies, at least with respect to participants in the activity, even when the property owner does not charge an admission fee for spectators. See Hupf v. City of Appleton, 165 Wis.2d 215, 219-22, 477 N.W.2d 69, 71-72 (Ct.App.1991). In short, these two exceptions function independently, and we do not infer from the existence of one that the scope of the other is therefore narrowed.

Because the language of the statute is ambiguous, we may turn to extrinsic aids to interpretation. The legislature has provided a statement of legislative intent to aid in the interpretation of the recreational immunity statute. It provides as follows:

The legislature intends by this act to limit the liability of property owners toward others who use their property for recreational activities under circumstances in which the owner does not derive more than a minimal pecuniary benefit. While it is not possible to specify in a statute every activity which might constitute a recreational activity, this act provides examples of the kinds of activities that are meant to be included, and the legislature intends that, where substantially similar circumstances or activities exist, this legislation should be liberally construed in favor of property owners to protect them from liability.

1983 Wis. Act 418, § 1. Although Wisconsin courts have often relied on this statement in determining whether a given activity was or was not a "recreational activity" under the statute, 3 it does not necessarily illuminate the legislative intent underlying the organized team sport activity exception. This is not a case in which we are called upon to interpret whether an activity is "substantially similar" to one of the examples of recreational activity cited in the statute so that it should be considered a recreational activity. Meyer's attendance as a spectator at the game, standing alone, is a recreational activity. See Kostroski v. County of Marathon, 158 Wis.2d 201, 203, 462 N.W.2d 542, 543 (Ct.App.1990) (attendance as a spectator at a ball game in the park is a recreational activity). Were it not for the ambiguity created because the event attended...

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