Seyler v. U.S., 86-4262

Decision Date28 October 1987
Docket NumberNo. 86-4262,86-4262
Citation832 F.2d 120
PartiesLeland J. SEYLER and Aileene Seyler, husband and wife, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. UNITED STATES of America, Defendant-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Ninth Circuit

Kenneth B. Howard, Coeur D'Alene, Idaho, for plaintiffs-appellants.

Warren S. Derbidge, Boise, Idaho, for defendant-appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Idaho.

Before CANBY, REINHARDT and BEEZER, Circuit Judges.

CANBY, Circuit Judge:

Leland Seyler, an enrolled member of the Coeur d'Alene Indian tribe, appeals the district court's entry of summary judgment against him in this Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) suit. Seyler was injured while riding as a passenger on a friend's motorcycle. The ride was taken for pleasure. The motorcycle failed to negotiate a turn on a road maintained by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Seyler claimed that the road was negligently designed, maintained and marked by the BIA.

In a published memorandum opinion and order, the district court ruled that the United States was not liable for damages arising from Seyler's motorcycle accident on the Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation because (1) the government is immune from suit under Idaho's recreational use statute, Idaho Code Sec. 36-1604; and (2) the government is immune from suit under the discretionary function exception to the FTCA, 28 U.S.C. Sec. 2680(a). Seyler v. United States, 643 F.Supp. 1027, 1028-29 (D.Idaho 1986). 1 We review the district court's ruling de novo. O'Neal v. United States, 814 F.2d 1285, 1287 (9th Cir.1987). We reverse.

DISCUSSION
1. The recreational use statute

The Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) authorizes suits against the United States for damages

for injury or loss of property, or personal injury or death caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee of the Government while acting within the scope of his office or employment, under circumstances where the United States, if a private person, would be liable to the claimant in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred.

28 U.S.C. Sec. 1346(b). The FTCA also provides that the United States shall be liable for tort claims "in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances." 28 U.S.C. Sec. 2674. "[T]he test established by the Tort Claims Act for determining the United States' liability is whether a private person would be responsible for similar negligence under the laws of the State where the acts occurred." Rayonier Inc. v. United States, 352 U.S. 315, 319, 77 S.Ct. 374, 376, 1 L.Ed.2d 354 (1957).

Idaho's recreational use statute, Idaho Code Sec. 36-1604, provides that "[a]n owner of land or equipment who either directly or indirectly invites or permits without charge any person to use such property for recreational purposes does not thereby.... [a]ssume responsibility for or incur liability for any injury to person or property caused by an act of [sic] omission of such persons." Idaho Code Sec. 36-1604(d). The statute defines "land" to include roads, Idaho Code Sec. 36-1604(b)(1), and defines "recreational purposes" to include motorcycling, Idaho Code Sec. 36-1604(b)(3). The district court noted that Leonard Seyler "was going for a pleasure ride on a motorcycle" at the time of his accident and concluded that "[t]he court cannot award damages under the Federal Tort Claims Act against Defendant United States when a state statute, as in this case, would provide immunity to a private individual under like circumstances." 643 F.Supp. at 1029.

We think it is clear that the district court misconstrued and misapplied Idaho's recreational use statute. Seyler's accident occurred on Agency Road 11, a two-lane, paved public highway maintained by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The government's contention, accepted by the district court, is that the recreational use statute applies on any road or highway in Idaho. Such a result is clearly absurd. The Idaho legislature cannot have intended to remove tort protection against road defects from all persons who drive for other than business purposes anywhere in Idaho. To apply the recreational use statute to the ordinary street or highway ignores the purpose of the statute, which is to encourage landowners to open land to the public that would otherwise be closed to it. Moreover, application of the statute is particularly egregious in this case. Idaho's recreational use statute applies on its face only to landowners who "invite[ ] or permit[ ] without charge any person to use [their] property for recreational purposes." Idaho Code Sec. 36-1604(d). The landowner is freed from any duty to warn "persons entering for [recreational] purposes." Id. Sec. 1604(c). We do not agree that the government "invited" or "permitted" Seyler to use a public highway on his own reservation. Nor is Seyler, while on his tribe's reservation, in a position at all comparable to that of a "person entering" land of another for recreational or any other purposes.

We therefore conclude that Idaho's recreational use statute does not bar plaintiff's suit, and we reverse the district court's order. Our prior decisions are not to the contrary. In O'Neal v. United States, 814 F.2d 1285 (9th Cir.1987), we held that Oregon's recreational use statute barred recovery by hunters who were injured while driving on a Bureau of Land Management logging road. Id. at 1286-87. In that case, however, extending tort immunity to logging roads furthered the purpose of the recreational use statute: if liability were imposed in cases like O'Neal, the government "might well choose to close the forests to public use rather than bear the heavy burden of maintaining logging roads as public thoroughfares." Otteson v. United States, 622 F.2d 516, 519 (10th Cir.1980); see also Jones v. United States, 693 F.2d 1299, 1303 (9th Cir.1982) (concluding that recreational use statute applies to ski slope in national park because "[t]he United States could close a park or a part thereof and restrict its use"); Idaho Code Sec. 36-1604(a) (stating that "[t]he purpose of this section is to encourage owners of land to make land and water areas available to the public without charge for recreational purposes"). In the present case, Agency Road 11 is a public thoroughfare, and nothing in the record suggests that the Bureau of...

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