Court Determines Whether State Immune From Liability For Injuries At State Park

September 24, 2011 | Erin Herbold-Swalwell

 

The plaintiff, in this case, was severely burned when he lost consciousness and fell into a pool of hot mineral water in a steam room at Hot Springs State Park in Wyoming.  The steam room facilities were owned by a private party, but the underlying land was owned by the state as part of the state park and was leased back to the private party. The plaintiff sued the State of Wyoming and the private party to recover damages for his personal injuries.  At trial, the state moved for summary judgment, claiming immunity under the Wyoming Governmental Claims Act (WGCA). In general, the WGCA grants immunity to the state from tort claims unless a claim falls within one of the Act’s statutory exceptions. The trial court granted the state’s motion, concluding that the state was entitled to immunity under the WGCA. The plaintiff appealed.

On appeal, the issue was whether the state’s activities at the park fell within a statutory “waiver of immunity” for negligent operation and maintenance of a public park.  Under the WGCA, “a governmental entity is liable for damages resulting from bodily injury… caused by the negligence of public employees while acting within the scope of their duties in the operation and maintenance of any building, recreation area or public park.”

What were the state’s obligations to patrons of the steam room in this case?  The WGCA involves a waiver of immunity for a state park- defined as a “public area of land having facilities for recreation.”  According to prior Wyoming Supreme Court Cases, the waiver encompasses recreation areas, including “facilities and amenities.”  The plaintiff claimed that the state was negligent in failing to mix cold water into the hot mineral water, and that the state failed to properly oversee the operations of the facility.  The plaintiff also claimed that the state negligently approved the design and construction of the steam room.

Did the state’s actions amount to operations and maintenance of the park?  According to the court, the Wyoming state legislature envisioned that the state would lease property located within the state park to private persons who would provide facilities for the public.  However, the state would still have the power to regulate the buildings and improvements, approve building plans and provide the hot mineral water to the facilities.  Thus, one could conclude that the state legislature intended to waive immunity for the state’s alleged negligence in cases like these because they intended to remain involved in several areas of operation and maintenance. Here, the plaintiff was able to present specific evidence of negligence on the part of state employees. Thus, the court allowed the waiver of immunity and sent the case back to the trial court to assess the state’s liability of lack thereof.

Two justices dissented in this case, finding that the waiver of governmental immunity did not apply.  According to the dissents, the state fulfilled their obligations to operate and maintain the park, and the steam room was not essential to the functionality of the park. In other words, ensuring the safety of the steam room is not the responsibility of the state, because maintenance of the park is separate and does not include maintenance of land leased to third parties. Essentially, the dissenting judges refused to extend the scope of the terms “operation” or “maintenance” to areas operated and leased by third parties.  Weber v. State of Wyoming, No. S-10-0049, 2011 Wyo. LEXIS 132 (Sup. Ct. Wyo. Sept. 12, 2011)