How far should cities go to protect people from poor decisions?

In this Dec. 11, 2013 file photo Zoe Reisen,10, of Dubuque, Iowa, sleds down a hill at Allison-Henderson Park on in Dubuque, Iowa. Faced with the potential bills from people who are injured sledding, Dubuque is one of the cities across the country the is opting to close hills rather than face the risk of large liability claims. (AP Photo/The Telegraph Herald, Jessica Reilly, File)

“In Omaha, the city banned sledding at a popular hill as a test one winter after losing a lawsuit, but decided to allow it again after most people ignored the restriction,” writes Scott McFetridge for the Associated Press.

“It wasn’t practical,” assistant city attorney Tom Mumgaard said. “People wouldn’t abide by the ban.”

Instead, the city has posted signs warning of sledding risks and workers at the site of the failed ban put pads around posts and hay bales around trees. Mumgaard said courts in Nebraska have decided cities must protect people, even if they make poor choices.

Most people realize that cities must restrict potentially dangerous activities to protect people and guard against costly lawsuits, said Kenneth Bond, a New York lawyer who represents local governments. In the past, people might have embraced a Wild West philosophy of individuals being solely responsible for their actions, but now they expect government to prevent dangers whenever possible.

“It’s a great idea on the frontier, but we don’t live on the frontier anymore,” Bond said.

Today’s Question: How far should cities go to protect people from poor decisions?

  • PaulJ

    Cities won’t get far trying to lower freeway speeds on snow days.

  • reggie

    Life is not risk-free and we cannot protect everyone from everything. I suppose it’s a foolish hope that we move back in the direction of holding people accountable for their own actions. This seems like an easy one: sledding is really fun and slightly dangerous. No one forces you to sled down the hill, so if you choose to do this, you should accept ALL of the risk. Judges should be bolder in summarily dismissing such lawsuits, and lawyers who insist on filing them should be censured.

  • whitedoggie44

    I believe the more important question is how to we reduce the number of lawyers who graduated in the bottom half of their class and have no chance at gainful employment other than to file baseless, groundless lawsuits, hoping for a large payout. Hot coffee from McDonalds anyone??

    • semisemite

      Are you seriously bringing up the McDonald’s lawsuit as an example of a frivolous litigation? You may want to do a little additional research…

      • whitedoggie44

        Yes, I am aware she was burned but inital verdict of $2.6 million- Give me a break. Move to UK process, loser pays. Walmart has a legal staff the size a many large law firms for a reason. Bogus litigation, slip and falls. Jessy Ventura was right, its natures way of cleaning out the gene poole.

  • shorelines

    Sledding isn’t a “poor choice”. In fact I think sledding is probably one of the better choices that one can make on a winter day. I see nothing wrong with cities trying to mitigate the risks so citizens can enjoy what is overall a healthful activity. I’m all for city installed hay bails and pole padding along with “sled at your own risk” signs.

    • davehoug

      I agree with you, but when it all goes wrong, who pays??

  • Jim G

    We learn from making poor choices, failure, and accidents. Cities can mitigate some of the risk by posting common sense reminders on safe sliding. An example: Walk up the side of the sliding area, not the center
    .
    I watched my then ten-year-old younger brother try to use a toboggan to negotiate a wooded trail. When the toboggan locked onto a 6 inch tree, he jumped from the sled only succeeding to send it skidding-off to the side and leaving him on the same tree bound trajectory. He wrapped around that oak like they were long lost friends. After a trip to the hospital and a week of cold packs on the affected area, he was as good as new… though he never used a toboggan on a wooded trail again.

  • Sue de Nim

    It seems reasonable to post warning signs about things like the risks of sledding (with “SLED AT YOUR OWN RISK” in bold letters), but if people choose to do risky things, they should bear the cost themselves. I don’t object to the city putting straw bales (much cheaper than hay) around trees and poles on sledding hills, but if such risk mitigation winds up costing a lot, maybe there should be a user fee.

  • Gary F

    Bicycling in a ice/snow storm and getting injured in a spill and suing for that. That’s next.

    Is there an “assumption of risk” anymore?

    • Dave M

      No, that’s not next. Really, it is not next.

    • KTN

      I wonder, do cars ever crash when it gets snowy and icy? Do they then sue because of that accident? Why would a biker?

      • Dave M

        Because manufactured outrage.

  • David P.

    I have heard of city’s being sued over injuries from playing park-rec sports or from falling while climbing a tree. While the city needs to make a good faith effort to make any recreation area as safe as is practical, it is unreasonable to expect any and all activities to be risk free. The questions are what is a reasonable level of precautions the city needs to be held to and what is a reasonable level of activity that the city should accommodate.

    • davehoug

      AAAHHHH but each person has their own balance of what is reasonable and what needs the courts to decide.

      • David P.

        Exactly. The city makes a “reasonable” decision when it decides to provide a venue and maintain it. Does a softball player have a reasonable expectation that the field will be level? Are ankle breaking potholes in the base path reasonable? Or to be accepted as one of the natural hazards of playing? The city has decided what is reasonable or practical when it allocates resources. A court may well decide differently. The question is where is the threshold? Since that threshold is different for each party, there will at some point be litigation to decide.

  • Cynthia McArthur

    A disclaimer should be the standard defense for such activities unless the area in question has a significant and obvious dangerous obstacle. I’ve gotten hurt on many a city hill, sidewalk or grassy area and never thought to sue…

  • John Dilligaf

    ”The ultimate result of shielding men from the results of folly is to
    fill the world with fools.“ Herbert Spencer (1820-1903)

  • 1MNDFL

    This is why the GOP has wanted changes for limiting frivolous law suits but the Democrats opposed it. why?

    • David P.

      The question becomes “What’s frivolous?”

  • Pearly

    Everyone gets a helmet.

  • James

    After gun craziness, litigiousness is the most bizarre American trait. Most people in most other countries wouldn’t even think about suing a city for something like a toboggan accident. Go to Australia. Swimming pools have no posted rules. Because in Australia, if you want to kill yourself doing something dumb, that is your right and your responsibility. One of the big differences is the cost of health care and the lack of a single payer system in the US. With single payer systems, no one sues to move the financial burden to a different insurance company, because they can’t.

    • shorelines

      I could be completely wrong about this – but isn’t it insurance companies that do a lot of the suing on “behalf” of their clients? If little Johnny breaks his arm at the municipal sledding hill, won’t his parent’s health insurance company sue the city to try to recoup the cost of his care? Never been on either end of this scenario – so like I said – could be completely off base.

      Also – it isn’t just a matter of shifting burdens between insurers – lots of individuals end up with big financial burdens even for small, not behaving stupidly, accidents. I think the lack of a strong safety net in general, but especially the lack of universal single payer health care contributes to American litigiousness.

  • davehoug

    Some city was sued because a rotten branch fell off a tree and injured somebody. NY city has folks climb aboard a bus after an accident for the sole reason of claiming injury and damages.

    Lawyers say if the city knows a hill is being used and does not work to prevent accidents, they must pay the accident bill……I figure unless money is collected, no obligation.

  • David P.

    It seems if cities adopted the “at your risk” model language used by private businesses (ski resorts, sports gyms, climbing walls…), the problem would be solved.