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Understanding the Dangers of All-Terrain Vehicle Use

All-terrain vehicles (ATVs) are a popular choice for recreation in Tennessee. But ATV usage is also a leading cause of personal injury and even death. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which has tracked ATV usage since the 1980s, recently noted that Tennessee is among the top ten U.S. states for ATV-related fatalities, with 546 reported deaths between 1982 and 2014.

Property Owner Not Liable for ATV Accident

ATVs are designed for “off road” use, meaning they should never be driven on paved roads or public highways. But when driving an ATV on private property, what responsibility, if any, does the landowner have to ensure the premises are safe to drive on? The Tennessee Court of Appeals recently addressed this question in dismissing a personal injury lawsuit brought by a person seriously injured while driving an ATV.

The plaintiff was operating an ATV on the defendant’s property, which included the defendant’s residence and approximately seven acres of “undeveloped” land. According to the plaintiff, he “neither asked for nor received the same detailed instructions from” the defendant before operating the ATV, which also belonged to the defendant. Tragically, while operating the vehicle, it flipped over and landed on top of the plaintiff, damaging his spine and leaving him unable to walk without assistance.

The plaintiff sued the defendant for negligence, alleging the defendant “failed to warn” him about various hazards on the property, which he said contributed to the accident. The defendant maintained he was not liable under Tennessee law and owed the plaintiff no duty of care in this situation. Specifically, the defendant cited the Tennessee Recreational Use Statute in support of his case.

The Recreational Use Statute provides a landowner “owes no duty of care to keep such land or premises safe for entry or use by others for such recreational activities as … off-road vehicle riding.” This means the defendant is not liable for the plaintiff’s injuries unless the latter can prove an exception to the Recreational Use Statute applies. Here, the plaintiff alleged three exceptions applied: First, the statute excludes a “landowner’s principal place of residence”; second, the defendant exhibited “gross negligence”; and finally, the defendant’s “willful and wanton conduct” failed to warn the plaintiff of the property’s dangerous condition.

A trial court, and later the Tennessee Court of Appeals, rejected each of these exceptions and granted summary judgment to the defendant. Regarding the exception for a landowner’s principal residence, here the appeals court noted the accident occurred near the defendant’s driveway. The statute only excludes the house itself and any “any improvements erected for recreational purposes that immediately surround such residence,” such as a swimming pool. A driveway does not fit within this exception, the court said. The court further said there was insufficient evidence for a jury to find the defendant committed “gross negligence” or engaged in any “willful or wanton conduct.”

Need Help from a Knoxville Personal Injury Lawyer?

Personal injury lawsuits often turn on highly fact-specific inquiries. That is why it is important to work with an experienced Tennessee personal injury lawyer if you have been injured in any type of accident. Contact the offices of Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette, Attorneys at Law, in Knoxville or Clinton today if you need to speak with someone right away.

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