Recreational Liability

Cities across the state provide citizens recreational facilities that improve the quality of life and promote physical fitness. Although recreational facilities bring many benefits to a community, cities must be aware of liability issues associated with the use of such facilities. Action taken during the 2015 legislative session removed a list of specific recreational activities in the state code that cities would not be liable for and replaced it with the broader term “recreational activity”. However, this change does not remove all liability from recreational activities on city property.

Recreational Liability in the State Code

Prior to the 2015 legislative session, Code of Iowa Chapter 670 pro­vided exceptions for municipal liability on inherently dangerous ac­tivities such as “skateboarding, in-line skating, bicycling, unicycling, scootering, river rafting, canoeing, or kayaking” – but not sledding. After a couple of cities faced very costly litigation and settlements, several cities chose to ban sledding from certain areas or throughout the entire city. While cities made it clear that they wanted children to be outdoors and active, liability concerns and demands from insurance carriers led them to take precautions to avoid litigation and burdensome settlements.

In addition, groups representing public schools showed that more than half of the schools surveyed did not engage in community use agreements because of concerns about liability. A community use agreement is an agreement between a school or municipality and a third party organization that wishes to use their property. Many people feel that publicly-owned land should be available for public use, and cities wanted to be able to fulfill that mission.

The new law strikes the individual activities listed in Chapter 670 and replaces them with the term “recreational activity”. During the process, legislators made it clear that they did not want to readdress this issue each session by simply adding individual new activities. This led groups involved to look for options to alleviate city and school concerns by changing the language of Section 670.4(1)(n) to incorporate activi­ties currently in the list and those that could be added in the future – leading to the all-encompassing term “recreational activity” replacing the individual activities listed. This language is similar to language that has been utilized in other states to provide exceptions for liability without creating a list of specific activities.

Remaining Recreational Liability Concerns

It should be noted the change in the law does not remove all liability for areas cities provide for residents to engage in recreational activities. Cities will still be responsible for ensuring that recreational areas meet any pertinent design standards and for negligence on the part of employees. As always, consult your city attorney. No matter what steps a city takes, there is still the possibility of an injury resulting from a recreational activity on municipal property leading to litigation.

Tips for Ensuring Safe Recreational Facilities and Equipment
  • Make sure that the recreation area is engineered and designed for the purposes it is being used
  • Have signs stating the participants are engaging in the activity at their own risk
  • Make sure you have staff to maintain the recre­ation area to ensure the properly engineered and designed area is set up as it was designed to be and free of debris or other obstacles
  • Only allow recreational activities in the area during suitable hours and weather conditions
  • Place padding around sign posts, hay bales to block dangerous areas and use fences or concrete blockades to completely block recreational activi­ties in certain areas
  • Whatever options you choose, be sure to com­municate with your insurance provider to make sure that activities such as these are covered under your policy
  • Remember: safe recreation areas require in­spections, ongoing evaluation and maintenance throughout the year

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