University of Texas at Arlington v. Williams No. 13-0338

Case Summary written by Regan Pearson, Staff Member

Justice Devine delivered the opinion of the Supreme Court, which Chief Justice Hecht, Justice Green, and Justice Lehrmann joined.

Mr. and Mrs. Williams sued the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) after Mrs. Williams fell and sustained injuries while at a stadium owned by the university. Mr. and Mrs. Williams were watching their daughter’s soccer game when a gate Mrs. Williams was leaning against unexpectedly opened and caused her to fall to the ground five feet below. The couple brought suit for negligence and UTA argued that the recreational use statute under section 75.003(g) of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code barred liability. Mr. and Mrs. Williams argued that the recreational use statute did not apply because Mrs. Williams was not engaged in a recreational activity, as defined under the statute, at the time of the incident. The trial court denied UTA’s motion to dismiss the suit and the court of appeals affirmed.

The Supreme Court of Texas granted UTA’s motion to determine whether watching a soccer game constituted a recreational activity under the recreational use statute’s “catchall” provision. The catchall provision provides that an activity can constitute a recreational activity if it is “any other activity associated with enjoying nature or the outdoors.”

The Court held that watching a soccer game does not fall into the recreational use statute’s catchall provision because the activity is not centered around the outdoors and nature and because the activity is unlike the other activities specifically mentioned in the statute to amount to a recreational activity.

The Court reasoned that the principle of ejusdem generis maintains that a general provision included with more specific provisions should be read in context with the specific provisions. As a result, the Court concluded that the definition of “recreation” under the statute is more specific than the term’s ordinary use and that the catchall provision in the recreational use statute does not include an activity simply because it occurs outside. Nature describes “part of the physical world that is removed from human habitation.” The Court noted that being a spectator at a soccer game does not remove oneself from human habitation—it embraces it. Additionally, the focus on competitive sports is the activity itself, not where the activity takes place.

Justice Guzman filed a concurring opinion, which Justice Willett joined.

Justice Guzman agreed with the majority’s conclusion, but more specifically examined the activity Mrs. Williams was undergoing. In her opinion, Mrs. Williams was no longer a spectator at the game and was actually signing release forms so her daughter could leave the game with her. The question was not whether observing a soccer game constituted a recreational activity, but whether signing papers at a stadium did. Because signing papers did not amount to such an activity, Justice Guzman concurred with the result.

Justice Boyd filed a concurring opinion.

Justice Boyd agreed with the majority that the statute narrowed the definition of recreation but differed in that he observed no clear guidance as to what the limits were. Because the statute deprived invitees of their common law right to sue for negligence, it should be interpreted in accordance with its ordinary meaning. As a result, Justice Boyd concluded that the statute did not apply.

Justice Johnson filed an opinion, concurring in part and dissenting in part, which Justice Brown joined.

Justice Johnson concurred with the majority’s conclusion regarding the gross negligence claim but dissented in regards to the ordinary negligence claim. Justice Johnson argued that the majority mistakenly concluded that the Legislature intended to give the term “recreation” a more specific meaning than its ordinary use when creating the statute. Williams was not embracing human habitation, only her daughter’s participation in outdoor athletics. In the dissent’s opinion, the recreational use statute’s catchall provision should apply to the observation of sporting events.