If you are the current owner of an oceanfront home in South Carolina or thinking about buying a home that provides access to a recreational area such as the marsh or a fantastic quail hunting field, you may wonder what your responsibilities are to people who use that area. What if someone were to slip and fall on the beach access boardwalk or if someone were to fall through the rotten railing on a bridge crossing a creek? Do I need extra liability insurance for such a situation? What are my responsibilities as a homeowner?
While each situation is different and must be evaluated on it’s own merits, South Carolina has attempted to limit the liability of homeowner’s who own property that can be used for recreation and to encourage owners of land to make land and water areas available to the public for recreational purposes by limiting homeowner’s liability should someone get injured. The South Carolina Recreational Use Statute (S.C. Code Section 27 et.seq) provides liability protection to homeowners opening their land to recreational use, as long as it is for public use and not a private commercial operation (i.e. the landowner charges a fee for entrance). Recreational use is defined as things such as hunting, fishing, swimming, boating, camping, picnicking, hiking, pleasure driving, nature study, water skiing, summer and winter sports and viewing or enjoying historical, archaeological, scenic, or scientific sites, among others.
As a landowner you owe no special duty to keep the premises safe for entry or use by persons who have sought and obtained your permission to use your land for recreational purposes or to give any warning of a dangerous condition, use, structure, or activity on your land to such persons entering for the purposes encompassed in the permission. While this limits your obligation to invitees on your property, it doesn’t completely absolve the landowner from ALL responsibility. Landowners who may be considered grossly negligent or willfully or maliciously fail to guard or warn against a dangerous condition, use, structure, or activity may still be found liable for damages to an injured person. What does that mean? If, for instance, a landowner has an old well on his property that he knows has no cover on it and fails to warn someone it’s out there, he could be held liable if someone falls down the well while hunting. Or, if you have a lake behind your house full of sunken posts that are six inches under the surface of the water and fail to warn persons water skiing of their whereabouts, you may be held liable. Gross negligence implies more than just negligence. Gross negligence is a willful and outright malicious failure to warn of or correct a known dangerous condition.
The South Carolina Recreational Use Statute encourages landowners to open their property to recreational use and enjoyment by the general public by limiting the potential liability of the landowner. However, it is not an absolute abdication of responsibility on the part of the homeowner. As an owner or a potential buyer of ocean front, marsh front or hunting real estate in South Carolina you can sleep a little more soundly at night knowing the law is on your side. Nonetheless, you should always carry general liability insurance on your property, and cover up those abandoned wells!