Recreation Risk Managers Need To Balance Concern And Law

Risk managers setting up programs to counter the perils in parks, playgrounds and recreation areas should sometimes follow their conscience and ignore cold-hearted legal advice, an expert advised recently at an industry forum.

Doug Wyseman, risk management coordinator for St. Paul, Canada, in a telephone seminar for the Public Risk Management Association in Arlington, Va., advised that while liability risks and financial risks are “the main reason most of us are here,” the chief area of concern is injuries to children.

“Fortunately,” he said, “we can eliminate the financial burden” and injuries to children simultaneously.

Mr. Wyseman recommended that risk managers of park and recreation departments in some instances avoid blindly adhering to legal advice. An example he cited is the issue of whether to post signs on trails notifying bike riders of an impending drop-off.

Risk managers who want to post signs, he said, are often discouraged by city attorneys citing immunity in some states from any losses that may happen on natural lands. The legal advice is not to post a sign, because once it is posted immunity is lost, he said.

“So what your legal department is saying is that it is far better to let the child go around the curve, not knowing there is a cliff ahead,” he said.

“And as he’s going over the cliff, somebody in an office downtown can be saying, ‘Thank God we didn’t put up a sign because we have immunity from any claim that comes out of this.’”

People, he said, need to remember the big picture and proceed in that direction. When looking at parks liability concerns, he said the rule of thumb is that “if you are aware or should be aware of a danger, you certainly have an obligation to protect other people from that danger.”

“That’s morally true, legally true, and every other way possibly true.”

Every year in North America, he said, more than 6,000 people are killed in recreational pursuits and 200,000 receive hospital treatment from playground injuries.

He continued that 57 percent of losses are avoidable31 percent are from poor maintenance, 12 percent result from equipment design, and 9 percent from equipment installation.

Of municipal losses, 10-15 percent come out of park and recreation departments, he noted.

Another point he made is that lawsuits are often filed out of anger.

“People generally sue you because they’re mad,” he said. “The attitude that they’re met with when they deal with staff goes a long way in determining whether or not people are going to sue you.”

An example he gave was an elderly woman who tripped on a crack in a sidewalk as she left City Hall and fell, breaking her glasses and scraping her hip.

But when she went back inside and told an employee that the sidewalks were “abysmal,” something should be done about them, and she should be compensated for her broken glasses, the employee wasn’t concerned.

“She was told to ‘watch where she put her feet’ and was told to go home,” Mr. Wyseman said.

Instead the woman went to a lawyer. Two years later, he said, her picture was on the front page of a local newspaper. She was holding a new pair of glasses and a check for $150,000. She said that all she ever wanted was for the city to fix the sidewalk and replace her glasses, he said.

“I can’t overemphasize the attitude of the staff when dealing with the public,” he said.

“So many claims are avoided simply by being polite and understanding what happened.”

One of the toughest jobs that parks departments have is “dealing with the risk management department, whose job it is to protect the organization,” Mr. Wyseman said. In the eyes of the park and recreation departments, “the way they protect the organization is by saying ‘you can’t do that.’”

Mr. Wyseman recommended finding a balance between allowing acceptable risks and eliminating unacceptable risks.

Risk managers should ask, “What is the worst thing that could happen in your department and what is in place to stop it?” Mr. Wyseman said.

Risk managers should find out how many losses they have, and why.

He explained that it’s fine for people to have risks, “but they can’t find unacceptable hazards when they go to the parks. That’s where the risk management program has to come in.”

Risk managers should identify exposures and try to eliminate them, “or make them as reasonable as possible and go forth in that way.”

To identify exposures, he said, “You do regular inspections. More importantly, you do regular documented inspections.”

Reproduced from National Underwriter Property & Casualty/Risk & Benefits Management Edition, August 5, 2002. Copyright 2002 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.