More Fallout Expected from Neb. Supreme Court Ruling on Liability

Skate parks across Nebraska, such as those in Fremont, Norfolk and North Platte, are the first casualties of a state Supreme Court decision about liability and insurance coverage, many are saying.

The Nebraska Supreme Court ruled in late September that cities could be held liable for injuries or damages sustained in places like parks, pools, and athletic fields. Cities now owe the public the same level of care at recreational sites as they do at any other site owned by the city.

“If someone is injured doing anything at a city park, they can more easily bring a lawsuit against that city,” said Johnnie R. Miller, director of the League Association of Risk Management, an insurance cooperative for Nebraska cities. “The floodgate is opened.”

In Fremont, that means the sledding hill, sand volleyball courts and playground equipment at a city park bring potential lawsuit threats.

If someone riding down the sledding hill hits a tree, or is hurt when they try to sled when there isn’t enough snow, a lawsuit could be harder to defend, Miller said.

A sprained ankle on a sand volleyball courts could put the city at risk.

Hunting also is a liability, causing the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to suspend hunting on university properties.

That includes a 10,000 acre popular hunting spot near Mead, an area near Whitman, a farm near Virginia and Cedar Canyon property in Lincoln County.

The potential liability for taxpayers is too great to allow business as usual, said Alan Moeller, assistant vice chancellor for the university’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

“We take this step reluctantly, but we feel we have no choice,” Moeller said.”If we ignore this ruling, we would be leaving taxpayers open to potentially millions of dollars in damages if someone was hurt on one of our properties.”

Hunting is the immediate concern, but other recreational activities on university properties likely will also be suspended, Moeller said.

North Platte Mayor G. Keith Richardson said it was necessary to close the city’s skate park because of potential litigation against the city.

“The Supreme Court made this determination and we have to protect our taxpayers and citizens,” Richardson said. “We hope they will understand. Until the insurance people get together, we had no other means to keep the skate park open.”

Miller said insurance cooperative recently told member cities that the court ruling voided previous protection against lawsuits for skate park injuries.

Skate parks likely will be covered again, but only after they are inspected. Tennis courts turned into makeshift skate parks likely won’t be eligible for coverage, Miller said. And all skate parks must be fenced, lighted, and helmets must be worn by all skaters.

In Yutan, members of its city council chose last week to wait before deciding whether to build a new skate park.

“This is something we need,” said council member Debbie Matthies. “But we need to wait to see how this plays out.”

After the first lawsuit is won against a city, more could follow, Miller said.

“Then it starts to spiral into a never-ending second-guessing game of how safe to you make a park before we can’t afford it anymore,” he said. “I hate to see that. I have young ones myself who love the parks.”