Weekend open thread: Sledding ban edition

What’s on your mind this weekend, Bleeding Heartland readers? This is an open thread: all topics welcome.

After an unusually dry December, most of Iowa finally got a decent blanket of snow this week. Meanwhile, a classic winter activity became the unlikely center of a public policy controversy. The Dubuque City Council moved to prohibit sledding at 48 out of 50 city parks, generating some national media coverage and debate over whether city officials over-reacted to worries about litigation.

Contrary to the exaggerated claims of some authors, no city has banned or outlawed sledding within its jurisdiction. Iowans in Dubuque and elsewhere are free to sled on private property and on some public land. The “ban” applies only to certain public parks.

That said, I agree with those who say Dubuque leaders went way too far and set the penalty for unauthorized sledding too high at $750. In fact, City Council member David Resnick was probably right when he warned, “Crowding all [these] sledders into two areas is actually increasing the safety hazard and I don’t think we should limit our potential [liability] by increasing the safety hazard for kids.” I hope the controversy leads to higher turnout in the next Dubuque local election.

According to Katie Wiedemann’s report for KCRG-TV, local leaders say unhappy Dubuque residents should talk to state lawmakers:

“Iowa law protects cities from liability in the event someone gets hurt on city property while biking, skating or skateboarding. But there’s no protection if someone gets hurt while sledding. Some lawmakers attempted to fix that during the 2013 legislative session, but the bill failed.”

However, Iowa Association for Justice Executive Director Brad Lint argued in today’s Des Moines Register that “the city already enjoys fairly broad liability immunity under Iowa law.” After the jump I’ve enclosed excerpts from Lint’s op-ed column, which also addresses broader issues such as unwarranted fear of litigation and groups “begging” Iowa legislators “for protection from the often nonexistent lawsuits in their fields.” As one Bleeding Heartland reader suggested privately to me this week,

Hopefully people will eventually see the sledding thing for what it is…another cynical attempt by the insurance industry to use people to twist the arms of their legislators to exempt the insurers from paying claims even in cases of negligence….

P.S.- Sledding is a common cause of serious childhood injuries during the winter. I know someone whose son nearly lost an eye and developed a life-threatening infection behind his eye socket after a sledding accident in her own backyard. I love sledding almost as much as my kids do, but keep these safety tips in mind when you play in the snow.

Excerpt from Iowa Association for Justice Executive Director Brad Lint’s op-ed column in the January 10 Des Moines Register, “Dubuque has nothing to fear but fear itself.”

As far as we can tell, there have been only three sledding lawsuits against Iowa cities in history. These were not cases of bruises or broken bones, but sledders permanently paralyzed after slamming into dangerous obstacles that were placed at the bottom of designated sledding hills by city employees who should have known better.

Plenty of cities have closed dangerous hills or placed warning signs informing residents to engage in this dangerous activity at their own risk. Dubuque went overboard, threatening a $750 fine for sledding at 96 percent of its parks.

This is a drastic overreaction. Far from being “lawsuit-happy,” Iowans are actually very hesitant to sue one another (or our cities), and we’re getting more and more hesitant with each passing year. According to the Iowa state court administrator, there were 29 percent fewer personal injury lawsuits filed in state courts in 2013 (the last year for which data is available), than 10 years ago. These days, personal injury lawsuits represent a mere 0.4 percent of cases filed in Iowa courts.

Truth be told, the city already enjoys fairly broad liability immunity under Iowa law. If the city performs dutiful safety evaluations of its sledding hills and documents a rationale for the level of maintenance it chooses, if any, it is unlikely to be liable for sledding injuries in any event. (This is called the discretionary function exception.) […]

Lawsuits are a risk we all shoulder, for the benefit of society. Over the years, personal injury lawsuits have made our cars, our kids’ toys, our medical care and our environment safer. Unfortunately, not everyone is willing to accept the accountability that comes with this risk, sometimes out of fear (Dubuque) and sometimes out of old-fashioned, unadulterated greed.

Modern day corporations, professionals and governments have different liability risks to consider, but they all share a hunger for liability immunity. Hardly a week goes by in the Iowa Legislature that one or another isn’t begging for protection from the often nonexistent lawsuits in their fields.

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  • First hand insight

    I wonder if Terry Branstad will be asked about this at his next newser. He took a header while sledding at Waveland back in the day and had to get his jaw wired up following surgery. I don’t think he sued anyone.  

    • I remember when that happened

      sometime during the 1980s. It was great fodder for conspiracy theories about how the governor’s jaw really got broken. I believed the sledding accident story.