Activists feared towns would close off riding paths (Shutterstock photo / April 4, 2012)

Score one for Connecticut bike geeks, rail-trail dudes and nature freaks, who appear to have foiled an attempt to roll back lawsuit protections for cities, towns and quasi-public recreational land owners.

"For at least this session, it appears to be dead," was the comment this week from state Rep. David Baram, D-Bloomfield. He was talking about legislation designed to gut a new law intended to prevent people who get injured on public recreation land from suing except in extreme-negligence situations.

The law was passed last year as a response to a recent $2.9 million personal injury award involving a 2002 mountain-bike mishap on some water company recreational land in West Hartford.

Municipal officials and open-space advocates were afraid cities, towns, water companies and other groups might start closing off public recreation areas to avoid similar lawsuits from people hurt while in parks, wildlife preserves, rail trails and beaches.

So there were lots of celebrations by outdoorsy folks when that law took effect last October.

But then a New London lawyer named Robert Reardon got a bill introduced in this year's General Assembly, according to Baram. The proposal would have "emasculated" the new law, says Charles Beristain, a member of BikeWalk Connecticut and the Connecticut Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board.

Baram, who's a lawyer himself as well as a sponsor of the recreational land law, did a little checking. He says what he found was that Reardon's law firm had at least one pending case involving a personal injury matter against "a beach town."

Kelly Reardon, a lawyer with her father's firm, said the case involves the town of Waterford and she testified to that at a public hearing. She also denies that her father or the firm were responsible for the introduction of the bill.

But that little bill would have specifically exempted beaches, paved sidewalks and boardwalks from the protections against lawsuits.

The legislature's Judiciary Committee was supposed to take up this gem on Monday, but Baram says he convinced the panel's co-chairs that it would be a waste of time because of the huge amount of opposition to the proposal. So the bill died without a whimper when the committee's Monday deadline for action passed.

Baram said the protective legislation approved by the General Assembly in 2010 was a compromise he worked out between the Connecticut Trial Lawyers' Association and open space advocates.

"The trial lawyers, to their credit, didn't support this" roll back that Reardon wanted, Baram says.

Kelly Reardon still thinks the protections against lawsuits involving public land injuries went way too far. She argues the law "creates a disparity between those who can file lawsuits when they are injured on municipal land and those who cannot."

Beristain takes the opposite view that the proposal to roll back those protections was extreme. "Any rail trail is a paved sidewalk," he argues, and warns that "beaches" could cover everything from the Connecticut shoreline to riverbanks, ponds and lakes. "Anything that has water near it is a 'beach,'"

The trigger for all this worry, debate and legislative action was an 2010 jury award of $2.9 million to a woman who broke her neck while riding a mountain bike on Metropolitan District Commission property in West Hartford.

Maribeth Blonski was coming down an trail near the West Hartford Reservoir one day in 2002 when she came up fast on a big yellow gate. The water company had put up the gate to block cars from going onto the property, which was only open to walkers and bikers. Blonski looked up too late, tried to stop, but slid into the big metal pipes and busted her neck in four places.

The judge and jury decided the MDC wasn't immune from a negligence lawsuit. Jurors awarded Blonski the money, even though they felt she was partially responsible. Her lawyer, Michael Stratton of New Haven, says Blonski is still suffering pain and "still can't sleep at night."

The MDC is appealing the verdict and the state Supreme Court is expected to issue a final in 2013.

Stratton says the MDC screwed up by not notifying its insurance company of the lawsuit and thus became directly responsible for paying out any damages. He also argued in court that the water company was negligent because of the way the trail and gate were designed, and because there were no warning signs.

The MDC's response was to threaten to shut down public access to all its properties, and municipalities across Connecticut began to get nervous about their open space lands and the potential for lawsuits. Bicyclists and trail enthusiasts insisted people involved in things like mountain biking and hiking should know and accept the risks.

"People need to take responsibility for their actions," says Philip Keyes, executive director of the New England Mountain Bike Association. "Things can always go wrong," says Keyes. "Brakes fail, trees fall down, things happen."

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