Many Montana citizens enjoy snowmobiling as a winter pastime, and the time for applying for snowmobiling permits is fast approaching. Yellowstone National Park, nestled in the northwestern corner of Wyoming on the border with Montana, is a prime location for winter snowmobiling, but there are also countless trials and snowmobiling sites throughout Montana. Anyone who intends to use a snowmobile in Montana this winter should understand the state’s laws surrounding snowmobiling and understand the risks of liability.

Montana Snowmobile Laws

All snowmobile drivers must possess a valid driver’s license to ride snowmobiles in Montana. Anyone who does not possess a valid driver’s license will need to pass the Montana-Approved Snowmobile Safety Course to obtain a snowmobile license and use a snowmobile on public lands. All riders under the age of 16 must have close supervision from a licensed adult.

The state of Montana also provides snowmobile riders with safety guidelines and best practices:

  • Anyone driving or riding on a snowmobile should wear appropriate safety equipment, including eye protection, pads, and a helmet.
  • Snowmobile owners must verify their snowmobiles have the appropriate state registration.
  • Snowmobile drivers should operate their vehicles at reasonable speeds.
  • When driving at night, use headlights and reduce speed for increased safety.
  • Obtain permission from private landowners if you intend on driving through private land.
  • Never operate a snowmobile while drunk or under the influence of drugs.
  • Pay close attention to posted warnings including trail markers, dangerous wildlife warnings, and other natural hazards.
  • Never ride alone through unfamiliar territory.
  • Keep an emergency kit on the snowmobile in case of an accident.

There are more than 4,000 miles of groomed snowmobile trails in Montana, but snowmobile riders may drive their vehicles on paved roads in some situations. If the local government allows for it, snowmobiles may travel on streets with typical wheeled vehicles. Other local governments state that snowmobiles may travel on paved streets when snow or ice accumulation makes travel by any other wheeled vehicle impossible or unsafe.

Snowmobiling Liability

In 1996, a Michigan man suffered severe brain injuries in a snowmobile accident north of Yellowstone Park after another snowmobile jumped a dangerous ridge near a trail and collided with him. The family secured $11 million in damages, $4 million of which came from the U.S. Forest Service due to their failure to properly maintain the snowmobile trail that caused the accident.

This case is just an example of the fallout that may follow a snowmobile accident. When traveling on public lands, snowmobilers should be aware of their rights in case of an accident due to mismanaged lands or poorly maintained trails. Suing a government agency like the U.S. Forest Service is very different than filing suit against another private citizen, so anyone who suffers such a snowmobile injury should reach out to a reliable attorney as soon as possible after an accident. Heenan & Cook, PLLC is available to free consultations and will help you understand if you have a case worth pursuing.

The filing requirements for a civil action against the government are much more strict than other civil actions, and missing a filing requirement can have a case thrown out and may prevent the claimant from securing damages. Snowmobilers must also take care to follow Montana’s laws for safe snowmobiling and respect all posted warning signs and trail hazards.