Michigan Supreme Court to Review Interplay Between Recreational Land Use Act and Motor Vehicle Code

The Michigan Supreme Court recently granted oral argument on an application for leave to appeal to consider the interplay between the Recreational Land Use Act and other statutes.

The Court may also consider changing the framework for evaluating apparent conflicts between statutes.

The outcome of In Estate of Robinson v Robinson, Docket No. 164190, could have broad implications on the viability of personal injury claims arising on rural property. It may also fundamentally alter how different statutes are considered in tandem.

For years, the Recreational Land Use Act (“RLUA”), MCL 324.73301 et seq., has protected owners, tenants, and lessees of rural property and farmland in Michigan from liability when individuals sustain injuries in connection with recreational activities on the land.

The RLUA generally prohibits causes of action against landowners, tenants, and lessees when a person is injured on their land, without paying a fee to be there, for the purpose of camping, hunting, fishing, “picking” agricultural products, snowmobiling, motorcycling, or other recreational activities.  Whether or not a person has a right to be on the land, the premises possessor (landowner, tenant, lessee) may only be liable for injuries to those engaging in such recreational activities when the injuries were caused by the gross negligence or willful and wanton conduct of the premises possessor.  These protections only extend to the owners, tenants, and lessees of the rural undeveloped property.

The significant protections afforded by the RLUA are often challenged by injured parties and their representatives.  The Court of Appeals recently evaluated the interaction between the RLUA and the civil liability act of the Michigan Vehicle Code, MCL 257.401 et seq., in addressing injuries resulting from an off-road vehicle (“ORV”) accident on rural land.  In Estate of Robinson v Robinson, ___ Mich App ___ (Dec. 28, 2021), the decedent’s estate sued two landowners in connection with injuries sustained by the 12-year-old decedent while she was riding on the back of an ATV driven by her 14-year-old sibling.  The decedent and her sister were visiting their grandparents, who resided on a large piece of property in northern Michigan, consisting of a cabin and several wooded acres that were often used for purposes of ATV trail riding.

The grandparent landowners moved for summary disposition, arguing that the claims were barred by the RLUA.  The plaintiff responded by arguing that the civil liability act of the Motor Vehicle Code should impose liability on the defendants for negligence in connection with the operation of the ORV on their property, notwithstanding the protections of the RLUA. The trial court granted summary disposition, concluding that the RLUA applied to the underlying activities that resulted in the decedent’s death and that the specific provisions of the RLUA trumped the Motor Vehicle Code.  The court also did not find any evidence of gross negligence as to the grandparent landowners.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court in a published opinion issued on December 21, 2021, opining that the RLUA and the Motor Vehicle Code both applied to the accident.  While the injury occurred on rural property during recreational activity, as defined in the RLUA, the Motor Vehicle Code also applied because the accident involved an ATV as defined in that statute at MCL 324.81101(a).  The Court of Appeals cited Miller v Allstate, 481 Mich 601 (2008), which held that when two statutes conflict, and one is specific to the subject matter while the other is only generally applicable, the more specific statute prevails and will govern.

The Court of Appeals in Estate of Robinson thus held that the RLUA was the more specific statute as it “deals directly with the potential liability of landowners when other persons recreationally use their property with ATVs.”  By comparison, the court found that the Motor Vehicle Code more generally applies to all motor vehicles in all places and circumstances.

The published opinion in Estate of Robinson is binding precedent as to the effect of the RLUA and its interaction with other Michigan statutes, such as the Motor Vehicle Code, that technically apply but are more general in scope.  However, the Michigan Supreme Court recently granted oral argument on the plaintiff’s application for leave to appeal, and has specifically asked the parties to address:

  • Whether the owner’s liability provision of the Motor Vehicle Code irreconcilably conflicts with the RLUA as to the grandparent landowners’ liability to Plaintiff’s estate;
  • Whether the pertinent inquiry in resolving the apparent statutory conflict in the case is to determine which provision is more specific; and
  • What the appropriate framework is for determining which provision is more specific.

Regardless of the outcome of the Michigan Supreme Court’s decision in Estate of Robinson, the case will likely shape the future of defending injury claims arising on rural property.  Moreover, if the Court reevaluates how apparent statutory conflicts are resolved, it could have far-reaching implications in other statutory interpretation contexts.

It remains to be seen how the Michigan Supreme Court will decide the matter, but we will be closely monitoring the case given its potential impact on rural property injury claims and, more broadly, on the issue of statutory interplay.

Julian Heidenreich draws upon his strong litigation background as part of Zausmer’s Insurance Coverage, Defense, and Fraud practice groups.