Connecticut bike geeks, rail-trail dudes and nature freaks are digging in, bracing themselves to defend a victory they thought they’d totally won last year. Their adversaries? Why it’s those irrepressible legal guerrilla fighters, the trial lawyers.
The theater of operations is the General Assembly, and the first engagement in this new round of legislative combat comes Thursday at a public hearing.
At stake is a bill to roll back protections for cities, towns and quasi-public land owners like water companies from lawsuits by people who get injured while in recreational areas like parks, wildlife preserves, beaches and rail trails.
Lawmakers last year passed a law designed to ease the threat of those lawsuits, which many people feared would force water companies and municipalities to close off public access to recreational land.
But lawyers say the new law that took effect last October goes too far and has no logic behind it. They say it now protects negligent public officials from legitimate lawsuits and takes away the rights of the people to go to court if they’re injured because of official stupidity. The lawyers’ goal is to eliminate the new law’s anti-lawsuit provisions for things like paved sidewalks, boardwalks and beaches.
“It would emasculate the law,” says an outraged Charles Beristain, a member of BikeWalk Connecticut and the Connecticut Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board.
“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,’ ”
Thursday’s hearing will be quickly followed on Monday by what could be a crucial vote by the legislature’s Judiciary Committee. If the panel approves the bill, the battling will continue. If it votes it down or does nothing (Monday is the committee’s deadline for action), the matter is pretty much dead for this year.
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 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 take responsibility for their own actions.
“Things can always go wrong,” says Philip Keyes, executive director of the New England Mountain Bike Association. “Brakes fail, trees fall down, thing happen.”
“People need to take responsibility for their actions,” he insists. If public access lands can be the source of endless lawsuits, Keyes argues, we won’t have any more access to those places to hike, bike or walk.
The result was last year’s law that exempted municipalities and quasi-public operations from lawsuits as a result of injuries or death on recreational land. A person could still sue if they could show the accident happened because of a “willful or malicious failure” by some official to guard against, warn about or correct something dangerous.
Kelly Reardon, a personal injury lawyer from New London, says that last part of the new law sounds good but means nothing.
“Grossly negligent is a standard that’s impossible to meet,” says Reardon, who’s planning on testifying at the public hearing in support of the roll back of those protections. “You could sue [under the new law], but would you ever win in court? No.”
She claims the law is just screwy. Reardon claims that a family could sue a town right now if their daughter got her hair caught in a negligently uncovered drain at a town swimming pool and drowned. “But if she’s injured walking to the pool [on a paved sidewalk or boardwalk], she can’t sue.”
Stratton agrees. He claims all the new law has done is stopped average citizens “from holding public officials accountable.”
“It’s amazing how people have bought into this nonsense,” Stratton says of the claim that the threat of injury lawsuits will result in parks and recreational lands being closed.
Eric Hammerling of the Connecticut Forest & Park Association thinks the real nonsense is trying to change the law when there’s been no complaints about blocked lawsuits since it took effect last year:
“We don’t see any compelling reason to reopen this whole discussion.”
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