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Owning private beachfront property is a dream for many and attainable for only a lucky few. But those who don't live the dream can still enjoy private beaches.
In fact, many states encourage property owners to allow recreational use of private lands by limiting liability. State statutes vary and the specifics are important, so do check local law before making any assumptions about going to the beach. In the interim, let's consider some general principles.
Private property owners are generally liable for injuries that occur on their premises and owe a duty of care to their guests. But when the guests are a bunch of strangers and the property owner is just being generous by allowing the public to access the space, the property owner will generally not be liable for injuries for unknown hazardous conditions.
Florida, for example, states that a private property owner allowing their land to be used for recreational purposes by the public, does not owe a duty of care to the public. If, however, the land owner profits from entrance on the land, then that limitation on liability does not exist, providing as follows:
The Legislature recognizes that an area offered for outdoor recreational purposes may be subject to multiple uses. The limitation of liability extended to an owner or lessee under this subsection applies only if no charge is made for entry to or use of the area for outdoor recreational purposes and no other revenue is derived from patronage of the area for outdoor recreational purposes.
Tommy L. Brown from Cornell University's Natural Resources Department provides insight on recreational use of private land in New York. He points out that private land use liability cases often involve a complicated intersection of laws on trespass and liability, among others.
He writes, "The New York State Legislature was among the first in the nation to realize how much people depend upon the use of private property for outdoor recreation." In 1956, it created General Obligations Law (GOL) 9-103. This limited liability of landowners who allowed hunting, fishing, trapping, and training of dogs on their property when no fee is charged and the landowner receives no other consideration from the recreationist. Since then, many recreational noncommercial activities have been added to this list, but not swimming.
Who Can Sue?
Just because a statute states that liability is limited, doesn't mean that no one can or does sue. Anyone can sue but whose suit will succeed depends on numerous factors. The real question is whether the plaintiff can successfully recover damages for injuries incurred on the private land. Ultimately, the details of a case will make all the difference, which is why people do still sue, despite the existence of such statutes.
If you have been injured on private property or elsewhere, speak to a lawyer. Many personal injury attorneys consult for free or a minimal fee and will be happy to talk.