Prince v. City of Apache Junction

Decision Date15 February 1996
Docket NumberNo. 2,CA-CV,2
Citation185 Ariz. 43,912 P.2d 47
PartiesRick D. PRINCE, Plaintiff/Appellant, v. CITY OF APACHE JUNCTION, Defendant/Appellee. 95-0170.
CourtArizona Court of Appeals
OPINION

PELANDER, Judge.

This is a personal injury action against the City of Apache Junction. The issues are whether the city can claim immunity under Arizona's recreational use statute, A.R.S. § 33-1551 (1993), and, if so, whether that statute violates article 18, § 6 of the Arizona Constitution. 1 The trial court ruled that the statute was applicable and constitutional, and therefore granted the city's motion to dismiss filed under Ariz.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), 16 A.R.S. For the reasons stated below, we reverse and remand.

PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff's complaint alleged that on November 16, 1993, he was a public invitee on a softball field at Prospector City Park (the park), playing league softball as a member of a trucking company softball team. The park was owned and operated by the city. Plaintiff further alleged that he was seriously injured when he struck his head on a portion of the backstop which projected out from the third base line fence, and that that was an unreasonably dangerous condition which the city negligently failed to remedy or protect him from.

The city moved for dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6), contending that "[p]laintiff can prove no set of facts that would entitle him to relief, because A.R.S. § 33-1551 grants the City civil immunity under these circumstances." That statute, as amended in 1993 and applicable to this case, provides in pertinent part as follows:

A. A public or private owner, easement holder, lessee or occupant of a premises is not liable to a recreational or educational user except upon a showing that the owner, easement holder, lessee or occupant was guilty of wilful, malicious or grossly negligent conduct which was a direct cause of the injury to the recreational or educational user. 2

B. As used in this section:

* * * * * *

2. "Premises" means agricultural, range, open space, park, flood control, mining, forest or railroad lands, and any other similar lands, wherever located, which are available to a recreational or educational user, including, but not limited to, paved or unpaved multi-use trails and special purpose roads or trails not open to automotive use by the public and any building[,] improvement, fixture, water conveyance system, body of water, channel, canal or lateral, road, trail or structure on such lands.

3. "Recreational User" means a person to whom permission has been granted or implied without the payment of an admission fee or other consideration to travel across or to enter upon premises to hunt, fish, trap, camp, hike, ride, exercise, swim or engage in similar pursuits. The purchase of a state hunting, trapping or fishing license is not the payment of an admission fee or other consideration as provided in this section.

In granting the city's motion, the trial court determined that "the softball field, which was the only property in issue, was in fact the premises," and that "plaintiff was a recreational user" under § 33-1551. In later denying plaintiff's motion for reconsideration, the trial court indicated that it "did consider the Constitutionality of the statute and declined to rule it unconstitutional." 3 This appeal followed.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Although the city and the trial court characterized the city's motion as one to dismiss for failure to state a claim, the parties submitted affidavits and other evidence to support their positions before the court ruled. The court did not strike that evidence and gave plaintiff more time to conduct discovery and to file opposing affidavits. It is unclear from the record whether or to what extent the trial court actually relied upon the extrinsic evidence when it dismissed plaintiff's claim. The court's ruling as to the statute's applicability, however, involved mixed questions of fact and law. In view of that and the unstricken, extrinsic evidence submitted by the parties, we must construe the court's ruling as an entry of summary judgment for the city under Rule 56. See Frey v. Stoneman, 150 Ariz. 106, 109, 722 P.2d 274, 277 (1986); Rule 12(b)(6) (When matters outside the pleadings are submitted and the trial court does not exclude such matters, a motion for dismissal "shall be treated as one for summary judgment ... and all parties shall be given reasonable opportunity to present all material made pertinent to such a motion by Rule 56.").

Accordingly, we must determine de novo whether there are any genuine issues of material fact and whether the trial court erred in applying the law. United Bank v. Allyn, 167 Ariz. 191, 805 P.2d 1012 (App.1990). We view the evidence in the light most favorable to the party against whom summary judgment was entered, and all favorable inferences fairly arising from the evidence must be given to that party. Angus Medical Co. v. Digital Equip. Corp., 173 Ariz. 159, 840 P.2d 1024 (App.1992). We also review de novo statutory interpretation issues and constitutional claims because they involve questions of law. Walker v. City of Scottsdale, 163 Ariz. 206, 208, 786 P.2d 1057, 1059 (App.1989).

DISCUSSION

Plaintiff contends that § 33-1551 violates article 18, § 6 of the Arizona Constitution and, even if it were constitutional, does not apply because the softball field was not "premises" and he was not a "recreational user" as defined in the statute. Because we agree with the latter contention, we conclude the city cannot claim immunity under the statute.

Section 33-1551(B)(3), as pertinent to this case, provides that a "recreational user" is "a person to whom permission has been granted or implied without the payment of an admission fee or other consideration to travel across or to enter upon premises to ... exercise ... or engage in similar pursuits." (Emphasis supplied.) "Because the statute limits common-law liability, we must construe it strictly." Ward, 181 Ariz. at 362, 890 P.2d at 1147. For that same reason, "the 'charge' ('admission price or fee') exception 'must be given the broadest reading that is within the fair intendment of the language used.' " Johnson v. Rapid City Softball Ass'n, 514 N.W.2d 693, 696 (S.D.1994), quoting Robbins v. Great Northern Paper Co., 557 A.2d 614, 617-18 (Me.1989) (Glassman, J. dissenting) (quoting Copeland v. Larson, 46 Wis.2d 337, 174 N.W.2d 745, 749 (1970)). See also Ducey v. United States, 713 F.2d 504, 510 (9th Cir.1983).

Contrary to the city's contention, in order to avoid recreational user status, the "admission fee or other consideration" need not be paid solely "to travel across or to enter upon premises." § 33-1551(B)(3). The latter phrase is immediately followed by the uninterrupted list of recreational activities, which modifies the phrase and must be considered in determining its meaning. Thus, if an admission fee or other consideration was paid, at least in part, to enter upon premises to engage in any of the defined recreational activities, that is sufficient to exclude one from recreational user status. For the purposes of § 33-1551(B)(3) and consistent with the city's position, we assume, without deciding, that the park's softball field constituted "premises," and softball is a recreational activity involving a form of "exercise" or "similar pursuit." See Scrapchansky v. Town of Plainfield, 226 Conn. 446, 627 A.2d 1329 (1993); Miller v. City of Dayton, 42 Ohio St.3d 113, 537 N.E.2d 1294 (1989).

Plaintiff was injured on a softball field during the course of an official, city-sponsored league softball game. The participation of plaintiff's team and its members, including plaintiff, on the accident date depended on the team's required payment of a $250 entry fee to the city. Parsons' Trucking, the sponsor of plaintiff's team, made that payment with the "understanding that this entry fee was a requirement of entering a team into the league and to use the league facilities."

During league play, the softball fields were reserved for such play. Thus, payment of the entry fee entitled plaintiff's team to reserved, "priority use" of the softball field at the time of plaintiff's accident. Johnson, 514 N.W.2d at 696. Part of the entry fee paid by league softball teams was for "field preparation," which included "[m]aintenance personnel dragging the field and chalking the lines and stripes" and installing bases. A portion of the entry fee also was "allocated towards the light use fee for the softball fields at night use." But for the payment of the entry fee, plaintiff could not have used the softball field at the time his accident occurred. 4

We agree with plaintiff's contention that it is irrelevant that "at other times, a fee need not be paid to enter upon the premises to play softball," or that the city may have been immunized under § 33-1551 had plaintiff been injured at a different place or time in the...

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