Most of us love to spend time during the summer at one of our city’s beautiful parks. But what happens when a fun summer day results in someone getting hurt at a government facility like a park?
We’ve talked in previous blog posts about the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act (CGIA). It limits on one’s ability to sue public entities. While we’ve discussed how the CGIA applies in medical malpractice lawsuits against state-owned hospitals, it also applies in civil actions against other state-owned entities. While the CGIA grants blanket immunity to governmental entities from all liability claims, it allows for some exceptions. C.R.S. 24-10-106 describes situations in which the CGIA’s immunity does not apply. One exception is for tort actions arising from the dangerous condition of any public building, road, or public facility located in a park or recreation area. A public park or playground (including school playgrounds and adjacent parks) fall within this last category. This exception means that citizens can to pursue civil claims against schools for injuries caused by an unsafe condition.
St. Vrain v. Loveland
The Lovelands tried to do this when their daughter hurt herself playing on her elementary school playground. She fell from the school’s zipline, fracturing her right forearm and wrist. She apparently fell because she lost her grip on the device handles, not because the equipment broke or malfunctioned. Mr. and Mrs. Loveland filed a lawsuit against the St. Vrain Valley School District, claiming that the simple presence of a zipline on the playground qualified as a “dangerous condition” under C.R.S. 24-10 106(1)(e). After the trial court found for the school district, the Lovelands appealed their case. The appellate court reversed the trial court’s decision. The appeals court broadly defined “dangerous condition” to include any playground equipment, regardless of its physical condition.
The Supreme Court Decision
The school district appealed and the case came before the Colorado Supreme Court. The Court held the “dangerous condition” exemption only applied to negligently-constructed-or-maintained equipment and that since the equipment at-issue was neither, immunity under the CGIA applied. The case holds that in order to sue a public entity for injuries arising from dangerous conditions, one must show that those conditions came about as the result of negligent maintenance or construction. One can’t just show an inherent attribute of the facility. A similar example could be if a child fell in lake at a public park and drowned. Unless one could prove the city negligently constructed or maintained the lake, the city would be immune from any lawsuit.
What does it mean for Plaintiffs?
While the decision would seem to be a loss for plaintiffs, the question of negligent construction or maintenance is not straightforward. Each case is different. An Engineering or construction expert may need to determine if a facility is safe. Factors such as the device’s surroundings, speed of operation, comparison to similar devices at other facilities, and whether the device has a history of causing injuries would all seem to be relevant questions in assessing negligence.
If you or a loved one is injured at a public facility as the result of unsafe conditions, talk to a personal injury attorney you can trust about your case. It’s important to act quickly, since there’s a 180-day notice requirement for any claim against a public entity.