Let's hope law restores sensibility to public lands liability

Friday, January 19, 2007

Nebraska's legislators are introducing hundreds of bills in Lincoln, some of which are very important, some of which are trivial, and most of which will never see the floor of the Unicameral, not t0 mention being enacted into law.

But some, while not profound, have the potential to affect our everyday lives.

One example is LB566, introduced Wednesday by Sen. LeRoy Louden of Ellsworth, which has the potential to correct a court ruling that could have a devastating effect on the quality of life in small towns around the state.

In September, the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of a woman who severely injured an ankle by stepping in a hole at Chadron's annual Fur Trade Days celebration in 2002.

After the district court and Nebraska Court of Appeals ruled that she could not sue the county under Nebraska's Recreation Liability Act, the Supreme Court ruled that law didn't protect cities and counties.

The effect was immediately felt by skateboarders and inline skaters, who found that many of the skateparks across the state were closed by cities afraid of liability.

The closings spread to sledding hills, and even hunting lands, including a popular 10,000-acre tract owned by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

If something isn't done, life could be different in towns like McCook. Unless communities want to pay a lot more in liability insurance, the public might not be able to enjoy outdoor activities in public parks.

McCook has great parks, and it would be a shame if residents weren't able to use them for sledding, playing sand volleyball or even enjoying the new disc-golf course in Kelley Park. An ongoing fund-raiser for a new McCook Skate Park will go for naught if the city isn't confident it won't be a severe financial liability.

Community celebrations like Heritage Days might even have to end, if insurance becomes prohibitively expensive.

And, what if the city has to worry about twisted ankles and skinned knees among people using the new walking trail?

Most of us would be hesitant to take our hometowns to court, but in cases of severe injuries causing financially devastating disabilities, the choice might be taken out of our hands.

"I think everyone has a duty themselves to behave safely," Sen. Louden said. "You have to do something to limit these cities' liabilities.

Public entities would still have to act responsibility, and could be held liabile if there was "willful or malicious failure" to guard against or warn people about danger. And, the measure pertains to recreational use of land.

Let's hope LB566, or something like it, restores sensibility to the situation, and soon.

Louden also introduced LB567, which would limit liability on private land, even when a fee is charged to the people using the land. That would encourage agritourism for people who couldn't afford expensive liability insurance, and could be an important economic development tool along the Republican Valley.

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