Nebraska Senate Advances Bill Shielding Cities from Injury Lawsuits

April 6, 2007

Nebraska lawmakers broke a filibuster and gave first-round approval to a bill that could open parks that have closed following a state Supreme Court decision.

State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha fought the bill (LB564) that would offer some protection to cities and counties from lawsuits by those injured on government-owned property, saying it lets public entities avoid paying if children are injured in dangerous skate parks. But state senators were intent on pushing the bill through and passed it 42-1.

“We’re not leaving kids out in the cold,” said Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha. “It’s a commonsense concept.”

Under the measure, cities and other political subdivisions would be protected if the injury was a result of the inherent risk of the recreational activity, such as skateboarding. They still could be sued if officials were aware of an unsafe condition and did nothing to repair it in a reasonable time.

The state’s high court said that cities and other political subdivisions can be held liable if someone is injured while using public land for a recreational purpose, include skateboarding, hunting, sledding or even walking around at a festival.

The decision prompted many cities and villages to close recreational facilities, including skateboard parks. Supporters of the bill also said that that without state action some cities’ summer festivals could be threatened.

“I’m hopeful it will create some relief,” said Don Wisnieski, who helps organize Norfolk’s Independence Day festival, Big Bang Boom. The event was canceled after organizers found out their insurance premiums would go up, but a local company offered to pay the extra cost, and the event is back on schedule for June 30. “But I won’t know until I read the language in the bill.”

The Supreme Court ruling that prompted the bill was in favor of a woman who severely injured an ankle when she stepped into a hole on the lawn of the Dawes County courthouse while attending a celebration in 2002 organized by Fur Trade Days Inc., a not-for-profit organization.

A state district court judge and the Nebraska Court of Appeals said the woman could not sue the county for damages because it was protected under Nebraska’s Recreation Liability Act. The high court disagreed, saying that law did not protect cities and counties.

“People around the state are going ‘whoa, time out, this is not what we planned on’,” said Sen. Mike Friend of Omaha, describing reaction to the decision.

The bill would protect a city in cases similar to the one in Dawes County, but in cases of gross negligence, which would be determined by a judge, a city still could be sued.

Chambers fought the bill strenuously even after acknowledging that it had broad support among lawmakers.

“My intent in all of this is to try to create a set of circumstances where these children that are going to be hurt will have some recourse,” Chambers said.

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