A federal court recently ruled that the federal government was not liable for injuries suffered by a camper at a campground operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). The camper fell down a wooden stairway at the campsite at the R. Shaefer Heard Campground in Georgia and was injured. While the court held that the government was not shielded from liability under the principle of sovereign immunity, the court nonetheless held that the government was protected as a landowner under Georgia’s Recreational Property Act.
The Georgia law protects landowners from liability from recreational visitors unless they charge them an admission fee to enter the land. The camper paid a camping fee of $22 per night per car. However, the court held that a fee specifically for camping was not an “admission” fee as contemplated by the Georgia law. The court noted that fees which relate to specific services or permits for a specific type of activity, such as hunting, are not entrance fees. In addition, unlike per person fees, per car fees also did not qualify as entrance fees under the law. The court also held that fees charged to defray costs were not admission fees. In this case, the USACE used the fees to defray costs for the services it provided at the campground. Therefore, the court found that the government, as the landowner, was protected from liability because it was providing recreational access without charging an admission fee.
The court also held that USACE’s decision to build and operate the staircase at the campground gave rise to a legal obligation for the Corps to inspect and maintain the staircase in a safe condition. The government argued that it was immune from any liability due to the staircase being unsafe because the USACE hired a construction contractor to maintain the structure and the USACE used discretion in supervising the contractor. Typically, the government cannot be liable for discretionary decisions. However, the court held the supervision at issue involved merely operational decisions and not the kind of policy decisions that otherwise would be protected. Nonetheless, based on its application of the Georgia recreational law, the USACE was still protected from liability.