Tips for minimizing risk so the public will enjoy the many benefits your municipality brings to the community
By Justin Maack
Dealing with the consequences of a serious injury occurring on your municipality’s property can be a nightmare. Elected officials should be proactive in addressing risks that pose harm to the public and potentially lead to injury and/or lawsuits. Protecting the public should be the priority of all municipal leaders, despite budget concerns that may present difficulty. There are many common liabilities municipalities face and ways to minimize the risk. These include:
- Sidewalks: Develop and implement a sidewalk inspection and maintenance program that identifies hazards that can lead to injury, most commonly, slip, trips and falls. Be sure to conduct routine inspections, especially in high-foot-traffic areas, and create a process for logging inspection, repairs and resident complaints. Develop a planned maintenance program to ensure regular updating is included in the budget. If your region is prone to colder weather, determine where the responsibility for snow and ice removal lies. Also, ensure all sidewalks are compliant with American with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements.
- Railroad Crossings: State railways are managed by the respective state department of transportation, but require local municipality cooperation when deficiencies are determined. The department of transportation will routinely monitor traffic control devices and crossing conditions. Even though the state actively monitors this, it is imperative the local municipality regularly inspect railroad crossings within their jurisdiction. A list can be obtained as reference. Every measure should be taken to document and repair traffic control devices to avoid crossing accidents.
- Parks and Recreation: Parents and those who supervise children assume your municipal park and playground equipment is safe and harmless. To follow-through on this assumption, municipalities should inspect their park and playground equipment on a regular basis, document inspections and follow-up on any deficiencies. Compliance with guidelines from the Consumer Product Safety Commission is ideal. The group provides specific details, including types of surface protection and specific measurements for equipment. All play equipment should be made for “commercial use” and not “residential use.” Every municipality needs to be aware of lightning safety awareness. There may be measures municipalities can take to protect life and property from lightning strikes.
Sledding hills present a winter risk. During snow months, it is recommended that an inspection checklist be created and the hills are inspected weekly, or daily if resources are available. Signage may also be useful on authorized sledding hills to outline rules or safety recommendations.
- Municipal Vehicle Ride-Alongs: Allowing ride-alongs in municipal-owned vehicles exposes your municipality to a greater liability from claims and lawsuits arising from potential injuries.
The governing body should be responsible for authorizing a written ride-along policy that all law enforcement officers and emergency responders have been trained to meet. Participants should be required to sign a waiver releasing your municipality from any damages or injuries which may occur because of the ride-along experience. If the participant is under the age of 18, ensure a parent or legal guardian has signed the waiver. Before each ride-along, the trained officer or emergency responder must review what is expected of the rider’s behavior. Procedures must be in place in the event of an emergency call that alters the typical ride-along schedule.
- Special Events – Think Fourth of July Fireworks: If festivals, parades, fireworks and 5K runs are common in your municipality, additional risk exists. Municipalities should always require an outside sponsoring organization to sign an agreement that includes hold harmless indemnification language in favor of the municipality and requires proof of insurance. Ensure the certificate of insurance includes the required types and limits of insurance. Specifics regarding fireworks display include the following: notify the local fire department, obtain any required state permits and adhere to state statutes.
- Local Block Parties: What risks are present during a block party? Well if emergency vehicles are unable to respond to a call due to occupied streets, or nearby residents aren’t notified that the streets are closed, this could potentially lead to injury. Require local residents to be notified of the party and road blockage. If any alcohol will be present on city property (including the street and sidewalk) the organizers of the party must first obtain a liquor license. Require local ordinances be followed with regards to noise and shutdown times. If the party closes major streets and significantly impacts traffic flow, it should be considered a “Special Event” and be reviewed under the Special Event guidelines noted previously.
- Zoning Disputes: Zoning laws can be more of a litigation issue. However, its prevalence makes the laws worth mentioning. Zoning laws are one of the tools used by local governments when planning communities, regulating business activities and protecting residential neighborhoods. Zoning ordinances and a community master plan should be adopted while observing state law and updated as necessary. This will maintain the ability to make objective decisions while considering all information submitted in zoning requests. Review all decisions with a qualified attorney and document the decision process. Additional procedural steps may exist. It is important to develop these thoroughly and follow the procedures to avoid exposure.
These seven liabilities can present dangerous environments if not adhered to properly. By minimizing risk with the above tips, the public will enjoy the many benefits your municipality brings to the community.
Justin Maack is an Account Executive in the Public Entity & Education practice at Assurance. He may be reached at www.assuranceagency.com.