Threatened By Liability, Iowa City Bans Sledding The city of Dubuque, Iowa, is the latest city to pass a ban on sledding. It affects all but two hills in town. City Council members say they've passed the ban to protect tax payers from lawsuits.
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Threatened By Liability, Iowa City Bans Sledding

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Threatened By Liability, Iowa City Bans Sledding

Threatened By Liability, Iowa City Bans Sledding

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

With snow on the ground in much of the northern U.S., lots of kids are scouting out the best hills for sledding. But in some Midwestern cities, more and more hills are off-limits. Iowa Public Radio's Lindsey Moon reports that's because of concerns over liability.

EDA: I need pushing.

LINDSEY MOON, BYLINE: It's a cold, blustery day in Dubuque, and giggly 5-year-old Eda McCarthy (ph) is bundled up in pink snow gear at Bunker Hill Golf Course.

JUSTIN MCCARTHY: Are you ready?

EDA: Yeah.

MOON: She says she likes the big, fast hills. Eda and her dad, Justin, don't usually go sledding here. But a new ordinance severely restricting where they can go just went into effect, and this is now one of only two places where sledding is allowed on city property. If you are caught sledding down restricted hills, you could face a steep trespassing fine. Dubuque resident Jason Wemmer (ph) is concerned that some kids won't be able to get to one of those two parks.

JASON WEMMER: I think it's a little ridiculous. Like, there are going to be less fortunate kids whose parents, you know, they got to - they get home from work. That's the last thing they want to do is take their kid to two separate places.

MOON: The city says it doesn't want to be The Grinch of winter fun, but it has a responsibility to protect taxpayers.

KEVIN LYNCH: There's a state law that says that municipalities are not liable for accidents that occur on city property that would come from activities like skateboarding or rollerblading or unicycling or kayaking, things like that. But noticeably absent from that list is sledding.

MOON: That's City Councilman Kevin Lynch who points to large lawsuits that have targeted cities after sledding accidents. Sioux City was involved in a nearly $3 million lawsuit after a man was paralyzed when his sled crashed into a stop sign. In Boone, a young girl slid into a concrete barrier covered with snow and was awarded $12 million. But in states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota, large sledding lawsuits haven't prevailed because immunity laws offer liability protection.

These laws, however, aren't ironclad. In Omaha, for example, city officials thought they had liability protection under state law, but after a 5-year-old girl was paralyzed after sledding into a tree, her lawsuit went all the way to the Nebraska Supreme Court. And the city ended up settling for nearly $3 million. Harvard law professor John Goldberg says it suits like these that are leading some cities, like Dubuque, to consider sledding restrictions or bans even when state laws try to protect them.

JOHN GOLDBERG: All it takes is a couple of high-profile judgments to get people worried, so I think, in this case, it may be not so much a calculation of oh, my God, it's only a matter of time before we get sued and more gee, if we do get sued, which is a low probability event, the stakes might be quite high. We could be talking about millions of dollars in liability. And why take the risk when we don't have to?

MOON: A bill to offer some protection for Iowa cities has failed in the Iowa Legislature for the last two sessions. Dubuque city officials say that if state lawmakers eventually pass that measure, they'll take steps to reverse their ban. Until then, kids like Eda McCarthy...

EDA: Wait until I'm ready.

MOON: Will have to go sledding at one of two parks. For NPR News, I'm Lindsey Moon.

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