On 17th February 2017, the High Court overruled a Circuit Court decision that awarded a sixty year old woman, Teresa Wall, compensation of €40,000 for personal injuries she suffered while hill walking on the Wicklow Way.
What obligations do landowners owe to hill walkers?
As the law stands, private landowners owe a duty of care to ‘recreational users’ of their land in accordance with the Occupiers’ Liability Act 1995. This duty is akin to that of a trespasser and is simply the requirement not to intentionally injure or act with reckless disregard for that person. In determining reckless disregard, the courts tend to look at whether or not it was reasonable for the landowner to protect the person from dangers on the land in question.
What did the courts decide in Wall v National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS)?
Judge Jacqueline Linnane awarded Ms Wall €40,000 for injury to her right knee, which required seven stitches, after she fell on rotten boardwalk along the Sally Gap to Djouce trail. A signpost erected by the NPWS directed hill walkers to use the boardwalk to protect fragile ecosystems. The boardwalk constituted a structure on the lands that attracted liability under the 1995 Act. The NPWS was held completely liable for its failure to maintain the boardwalk in a safe condition.
On appeal to the High Court Judge Michael White delivered a common sense judgment in dismissing Ms Wall’s case for her failure, as an experienced hill walker, to simply look where she was going to avoid the evident depressions in the boardwalk.
This welcome judgment has clarified the legal duty owed by private landowners to hill walkers, namely, not to intentionally injure or act with reckless disregard towards that person. Landowners are now encouraged to permit hill walker access to the countryside for recreation and rural tourism, while hill walkers are equally encouraged to abide by the well-established principle that those who engage in dangerous activities should take the countryside as they find it and voluntarily assume the risks associated with it.