JOINT FAVORABLE REPORT
AN ACT CONCERNING LIABILITY FOR THE RECREATIONAL USE OF LANDS.
Joint Favorable Substitute
SPONSORS OF BILL:
REASONS FOR BILL:
The Connecticut Land Use Recreation Act recognizes the importance of encouraging landowners to open up their land to the public for recreational purposes by protecting landowners from liability for personal injury lawsuits as long as they do not charge a fee for access to the property. Such landowners include state and private landowners. Originally, municipalities and municipal entities were thought to be included in the definition of “owner” under the statute, however the 1996 Supreme Court decision in Conway v Wilton held otherwise. Under current law, municipalities and quasi-public entities do not have immunity from liability. Recent court decisions resulting in multi-million dollar damage awards have raised serious concerns for municipalities, some of whom have threatened to close off recreational access to land. This bill amends the definition of “owner” to explicitly include municipalities and municipal entities, therefore extending limited immunity from liability to them.
Clarifies the definition of “land” and “road” under the Recreational Land Use Act.
RESPONSE FROM ADMINISTRATION/AGENCY:
NATURE AND SOURCES OF SUPPORT:
Representative Gail Lavielle: Supports this bill which would restore to municipalities the same limited immunity from liability that other types of landowners enjoy. Restoring this protection is particularly important at this time when there is so much focus on health and wellness initiatives and on reducing automobile usage. Also, municipalities are dealing with increasing costs and declining revenue and should not have to cope with the uncertainties of exposure to unlimited and unknown liability that are currently a consequence of making municipal land available for public use. Rep. Lavielle suggests adding “walking” to the list of activities in the definition of “recreational purpose” because municipal land is often located in urban areas where the term “hiking” may not apply.
Representative Bill Wadsworth: Providing this protection to municipalities will give them confidence to retain and acquire open space for preservation. The current threat of litigation may cause municipalities to postpone or abandon the purchase of additional open space, or close off access to current open spaces. Spending money on safety equipment and maintenance, obtaining additional liability insurance at additional cost, and defending against frivolous lawsuits amount to a considerable expense that municipalities are currently forced to bear.
Mary A. Glassman, First Selectwoman, Town of Simsbury: Restoring recreational liability protection to municipalities is particularly important to the Town of Simsbury which has nearly 6,600 acres of open space. Parks and open space contribute to the quality of life, as well as to local real estate values. Continued liability exposure will only cause municipalities to consider limiting recreational opportunities and to forgo future open space acquisitions.
Mary Ann Drayton-Rogers, First Selectwoman, Town of Oxford: Preservation of open space is a major goal for the rural town of Oxford. The ability to keep Oxford's parks, trails, beach and boat launch area and recreational facilities open will depend heavily on the outcome of the passage of fair and reasonable legislative protection for municipalities.
Joseph S. Mazza, First Selectman, Town of Guilford: Access to the open space land in Guilford is an important part of quality life for Guilford residents. Municipalities need to be protected from frivolous lawsuits or they will be forced to close access to the open space or at least begin charging fees to cover the potential liability and legal expenses.
The City of Middletown Water Department: This department maintains the Mattabassett Trail open to recreational use on their property. This legislation would allow for the continued historic use of the trail through Mount Higby Reservoir.
Town of Westbrook Conservation Commission: Frivolous lawsuits have made the Town of Westbrook concerned that public access to the trails and vistas of Westbrook's open space (recently acquired) will need to be restricted. The development of Westbrook's current planned Greenway may be threatened or stopped if the town is not protected from recreational liability. Access to town owned open space will be restricted and town residents will be reluctant to support further open space acquisition unless the town is protected from potential exposure to costly personal injury lawsuits.
Tom Crider, President, Southbury Land Trust Inc.: Liability concerns discourage towns from keeping parks open and from acquiring more space for public enjoyment. It is unreasonable to allow liability for towns while private landowners and the state are protected from the same kinds of liability.
Insurance Association of Connecticut: Supports this bill which would expand sovereign immunity for public entities that permit recreational use of their lands. Municipalities maintain a vast amount of open space suitable for recreational use and therefore should also enjoy the immunity provided to the private sector.
Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM): Although CCM appreciates the intent behind this bill, they believe it does not go far enough in providing the needed relief to municipalities. CCM supports S.B. 43, a similar bill favorably reported out of the Planning and Development Committee, which would codify municipalities under the protections of the Recreational Land Use Act.
Jessica Morowitz, Legal Fellow, Connecticut Fund for the Environment: By ensuring that municipalities and municipal entities receive the same liability protection as the state and private landowners, they will be encouraged to open the vast amount of land that they own to the public to provide low-cost recreational opportunities. Without such protections, the fear of lawsuits could result in a large amount of open space being closed off to citizens.
Elizabeth Gara, Connecticut Water Works Association (CWWA): Open space land preservation is critical to protecting Connecticut's water resources, ecological habitats and natural beauty, as well as providing recreational opportunities. Extending liability protection will encourage water companies to continue to provide opportunities to access water company lands for recreational opportunities.
Bart Russell, Executive Director, Connecticut Council of Small Towns (COST): Municipalities are increasingly exposed to enormous liability for injuries occurring on recreational lands and are considering, or have already begun, to limit recreational activities on their land as a result. The statute should be amended to provide some protection from personal injury lawsuits for towns and cities that allow people free access to recreational lands that are reasonably maintained.
Eric Hamerling, Executive Director, Connecticut Forest and Park Association: If limited liability protection is not extended to municipalities, access may be closed to recreational areas and municipalities will be discouraged from developing or opening new recreational areas. It is poor public policy for the state to encourage municipalities to conserve land, provide bonding/funding for that purpose, and then support policies which lead to municipalities closing their lands to recreational access due to liability concerns. The testimony submitted lists supporters of restoring recreational liability protection for municipalities.
Charles Beristain, Founder, Bike Walk Connecticut: Municipalities should not be excluded from coverage provided to the state, private landowners, corporations, and utilities. Fear of liability results in municipalities limiting access to recreational lands.
Sidney F. Van Zandt, Founder, Groton Open Space Association: If open space is no longer available for recreation because of liability issues, the land may be claimed by developers. Open space is not only a vital recreational asset and a refuge for wildlife, but it also protects underground water supplies.
The Connecticut Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board: The budget issues that municipalities face, when coupled with the justifiable fear of liability, provide an incentive to close open spaces and to not acquire new space. These open spaces are key and very popular recreational facilities that significantly contribute to making Connecticut a place where people want to live.
Atty. Janet P. Brooks: The purpose of granting immunity is to encourage landowners to make property available for recreational activities. It makes no sense to encourage private landowners and the state, while excluding municipalities, which are subdivisions of the state.
Atty. Beth Critton: Restoring municipal recreational immunity will help further the goal of encouraging children to get outdoors. Restoring recreational immunity to municipalities will improve Connecticut's public health, economic viability, and quality of life. It will also reduce costs to municipalities and municipal taxpayers relating to increased insurance premiums and to the defense or settlement of frivolous lawsuits.
Atty. Robert A. Izzard: Failure to pass this bill would result in two possible negative outcomes: municipalities may close the open land to recreational use, and/or the municipality will increase rates to pay for increased insurance. The failure to pass this bill would mean that those who are risk averse can take away a great benefit for others who recognize that there are risks in life.
Geoffrey L. Meissner, Director, Connecticut Forest and Park Association: This bill should be passed in order that municipalities continue to offer citizens the benefits of outdoor areas without restriction. This bill will go a long way to helping mitigating risk associated with this access. Access to open spaces is also important for the well-being and growth of Connecticut's children.
Sally Rieger, Simsbury Land Trust: Giving the Town of Simsbury the same legal protection from liability that the land trust already enjoys will help keep West Mountain Trails open for the public to enjoy.
R. Bruce Donald, President, Farmington Valley Trails Council, Inc.: Municipalities owning structures on land used for recreational purposes should be entitled to immunity under the Recreational Land Use Act. It would be a disaster for the state if municipalities' ceased building trails due to fear of liability.
Jean-Ellen M. Trapani: A Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan prepared by the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection show the high demand for outdoor recreational facilities. The report also discusses the physical, educational, psychological and economic benefits of outdoor recreation. This report shows widespread evidence of support by citizens for access to outdoor recreational opportunities.
Susan Masino, Chair, Safe Routes to School Committee, Tootin' Hills: Safe Routes to School encourages children to walk or bike to school, often on small easements and major parcels of town land. This bill would resolve a 'glitch in the law' by restoring to municipalities limited immunity from liability.
Joan Hill, CT Open Space Committee, Columbia: Columbia is increasingly reluctant to take on the responsibility of open spaces due to fear of liability. This legislation will help keep municipal lands open and growing.
Barbara Donahue: It is a shame that frivolous lawsuits stifle citizens' ability to use municipal land for recreational purposes.
Kathy Connolly: Municipalities should have the same protection as the state and individuals from liability by recreational users of municipal lands. Passage of this bill will help maintain public access to recreation on municipal lands, which is critically important to people of all ages.
Ellen and Lewis Lukens: Especially in difficult economic times such as these, citizens are in need of access to free locations. The passage of this bill will avert the threat that some recreational areas may be closed due to fear of liability.
Brooke Samuelson: Frivolous lawsuits should not prevent public access to municipal lands. This bill is an appropriate barrier against frivolous personal injury lawsuits.
David Kozak: Developers of waterfront sites are reluctant to provide open access if they believe that injury to the public on those lands could subject them to liability claims. Many municipalities find themselves in the precarious position of requiring shoreline public access pursuant to the policies of Connecticut's Coastal Management Act, but are no longer being protected by state statute from potential liability claims resulting from injury at waterfront sites secured through municipal permit decisions.
Connecticut Association of Conservation and Inland Wetlands Commissions, Inc.: Efforts to preserve local open space parcels are crucial to sustaining Connecticut's natural habitats and resources, scenic landscapes, and fragile ecosystems. This bill would aid conservation and inland wetland commissions in their efforts to preserve important Connecticut habitats and help sustain the esthetic natural beauty of Connecticut.
Starr Sayres, Vice President and Board of Directors, Connecticut Forest & Park Association: Connecticut citizens place high value upon ready access to neighborhood multiuse trails and recreational areas. To remove public accessibility to these outdoor resources at the local town and municipal levels would represent a very real erosion of that which is prized by the vast majority of citizens.
Terri Peters: There are many people who would not want to live in a state that values frivolous lawsuits over the ability to use municipal land for recreational purposes. This legislation is obviously necessary and should be passed.
Brendan Mahoney: It is unfair to limit access to public lands which express purpose is to provide recreational opportunities to the public. Municipalities ought to have the protections necessary to be shielded from frivolous or opportunistic lawsuits.
Mark N. Pacquette, Executive Director, Windham Region Council of Governments: Liability protection that is currently afforded to state, private, utility, and corporate landowners should be restored to municipalities which enjoyed the protection for 25 years before it was removed in a controversial court case.
Christopher Zurcher, Editor and Publisher, Environmental Headlines: It is necessary that all citizens be able to continue to enjoy free access to land for recreational use as these activities are important to quality of life.
New England Mountain Bike Association: Protecting municipalities from frivolous lawsuits is critical to the economic and physical health of communities. Municipalities should not be penalized for providing opportunities for healthy recreation. This bill will help promote healthy outdoor recreation, help Connecticut's municipalities and their struggling budgets, and restore basic justice to the Recreational Use Statutes.
Georgette Yaindl, Executive Director, Bike Walk Connecticut: There is no rational basis for a state recreational land use policy that provides municipal and quasi-public landowners any less express statutory provision of limited immunity than any other owner of land.
Rick Tillotson, Trail Manager, Connecticut Forest and Park Association: In order to prevent removal of access to open land, it is necessary to provide appropriate legal protection for the owners. This bill will provide the necessary protection for municipalities which will allow continued access to open spaces for important recreational purposes.
Andrew May: This legislation does not provide municipalities blanket immunity from negligence but rather it offers them the same protections rightfully extended to state and private landowners. This common sense bill has the potential to help municipal entities, environmental groups, families, and children.
Karen Durlach, Chairperson, Thompson Trails Committee: Fixing the Recreational Liability Statute is critical to protect and encourage municipal landowners to make open space accessible to the public for approved recreational use. Increasing outdoor recreation opportunities in Connecticut promotes public health and brings in tourism dollars.
Tessa Bondi, Recreational Equipment, Inc: As a business person it's critical that our customers have places close to home in which to enjoy the outdoors and the products that we sell. HB 6557 provides the immunity for municipalities under the Recreational Lands Use Act that helps unsure access to recreational areas. The bill restores this necessary immunity to municipalities and is consistent with the way in which the law views private landowners and the state.
Tim Linehan, Connecticut Chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club, Chair: One can understand a municipality's desire to protect its taxpayers from increased insurance premiums, deductibles, and the expenses associated with legal defenses and responses – particularly when these costs would need to be absorbed by smaller towns. It's unfortunate that there are already restrictions on recreational access to some of our State's most notable natural resources. It would be a tremendous loss to the quality of life in Connecticut if more areas were closed to recreation due to increased liability concerns following the significant judgments of the past year.
Margaret Miner, Rivers Alliance of Connecticut, Executive Director: Connecticut state law needs to be amended to provide greater protection to municipalities that provide free access to their open spaces. In the present grim economic circumstances, one of the few extra benefits that towns can offer residents is the chance to enjoy the countryside. But if this benefit comes at the price of unique legal liability (not imposed on the state or on individual property owners), then towns and utilities must seriously consider shutting out the public. This Committee has the authority and the expertise to remedy this problem.
Amy Blaymore Paterson, Connecticut Land Conservation Council, Executive Director: Despite many benefits and contrary to the public policy underscoring the tremendous investment made in land conservation at both the local and state level, municipalities are considering the closure of access to existing recreation areas out of mounting fear of liability and to avoid the cost related to increased insurance premiums and the defense or settlement of frivolous lawsuits – thereby sending a message that the risks of liability from owning operating and maintaining open space outweigh the benefits that these lands provide to us all.
Marshall R. Collins, Connecticut Recreation & Parks Association, The Greater Danbury Chamber of Commerce, The Milford Chamber of Commerce, The Northwest Connecticut Chamber of Commerce, Counsel for Government Relations: CRPA and the three Chambers of Commerce strongly support HB 6557 that would provide reasonable and necessary limitations on municipal liability for the recreational use of lands. The legislation is long overdue.
Edward J. Soper, Manchester Water Department, Administrator: The Town of Manchester encourages the adoption of the above-referenced legislation that would limit our Water Department's exposure to liability related to activities that are part of its passive recreation program.
Frank Chiaramonte, Town of Harwinton, First Selectman: We are concerned that increased liability costs may force us to consider limiting access to recreational facilities. Faced with trying to budget for increased costs in the areas of education, road repair, health care, labor costs and more, towns like Harwinton may have very few options for reducing costs. Increased liability concerns will also be an important factor in determining whether we should move forward with any new recreational facilities or the purchase and protection of open space lands.
The Metropolitan District (MDC): In May 2010, a jury in the case of Blonski v. Metropolitan District awarded $2.9 million in damages to a cyclist injured when she rode her bicycle into a closed gate at the West Hartford reservoir. It is clear that the Blonski case has brought a renewed focus on the liability of all public entities, not solely the MDC, for injuries to individuals who use their land to recreate. HB 6557 adequately protects municipalities from frivolous lawsuits, while insuring that there is no absolute immunity for injuries occurring within certain improvements to this property – swimming pools, playing fields, playgrounds and tennis courts.
Will Manzer, Eastern Mountain Sports, Chief Executive Officer: As the Chief Executive Officer of Eastern Mountain Sports and the Chair Elect of the Outdoor Industry Association's Board of Directors, I am deeply concerned about the diminishing close to home recreation venues in the markets we serve. It is for this reason that we strongly urge the passage of HB 6557. Allowing municipalities and specific special district entities like the MDC the same liability protections that private landowners enjoy is extremely important. Passing this bill will send a clear message encouraging towns and quasi-municipalities like the MDC to keep their lands open to all.
Rick Tillotson: We cannot place blame on those municipalities or organizations who would allow us to hike, bike, jog or otherwise wander through their properties. We have to ensure that we provide appropriate legal protection for the owners of these areas so that they are not afraid of the consequences of allowing people onto them.
Martin Mador, Legislative Chair, Sierra Club, Connecticut Chapter: Sierra Club members are concerned not only about the closing of public lands to the public due to fear of liability, but also about the financial burdens that towns must bear including insurance coverage, litigation defense, and settlement awards. Outdoor recreation contributes to personal health and well-being, contributes to the economy through sales of equipment and outings, and enhances awareness of natural places which, in turn, helps preserve them. This bill will ensure that open spaces remain available to the public. The Sierra Club, Connecticut Chapter, submitted testimony of 123 Connecticut residents in support of HB 6557.
John Bilda, General Manager, Norwich Public Utilities: Trespassing incidents have occurred on land owned by Norwich Public Utilities. Should one of these trespassers become injured and chose to file suit, a liability exists. If the liabilities that resulted in multi-million dollar damage awards continue, more aggressive and costly enforcement may be required.
NATURE AND SOURCES OF OPPOSITION:
Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association: Adding municipalities and quasi-public landowners to the recreational land use liability law is against public policy and provides an undue burden on injured victims who sustain their injuries on public lands through no fault of their own. The original intention of the narrow immunity provided to private land owners was to offer them an incentive to open their lands to public use, as they were under no compulsion by law to do so. There is no need to likewise encourage municipalities, as they have always historically made their open space open to the public, as it is the public's land. Municipalities already enjoy a powerful defense under the doctrine of governmental immunity and therefore this legislation is unwarranted.
Reported by: Meredith Blake
Date: May 10, 2011