Play instead of pay

Cities and towns are offering a wider array of parks and recreational activities than ever before. While this means more opportunities for residents, it also increases the potential for injury and liability claims. These activities and facilities attract participants of all ages and abilities, so officials should carefully evaluate all risks to reduce potential liability.

Many municipalities rely on volunteers to fill a number of roles, such as coaches, referees/umpires and aides. Although not employees, these volunteers are generally considered agents of the municipality. As such, their actions can create liability for the city.

To minimize potential exposure, the city should screen, train and supervise all volunteers. "Require background checks and review driver’s license histories to limit exposures," advised Heather Ricard, director of the Association’s Risk Management Services.

"Consider conducting a criminal history check for coaches, playground leaders or others who have contact with children," she said. "Also, conduct a criminal history check on volunteers who handle money as part of their duties."

Municipalities sponsoring sports and recreational activities should provide qualified instructors, adequate supervision, safe and suitable equipment, and adequate medical care, such as emergency procedures and first aid/CPR. For some activities, the city should require signed waivers and releases from participants, as well as medical authorizations from their personal physicians before allowing individuals to engage in any hazardous activities.

City officials should also familiarize themselves with state and federal laws that could apply to recreation activities. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires newly built recreational facilities or those being rebuilt be compliant with the ADA. Other laws and practices can lessen the likelihood of severe claims. In South Carolina, the Tort Claims Act limits liability damages to $300,000 per person or $600,000 per occurrence.

Routinely scheduled playground inspections can help city officials determine where work needs to be done to keep playgrounds and play equipment safe. Audits that check for compliance with the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the American Society for Testing and Materials International standards can identify areas that need attention. "Be sure to document all inspection findings and maintenance performed, and correct any identified hazards," said Ricard.

With the approach of warm weather and the increased use of swimming facilities, the likelihood increases for claims related to aquatics liability. The spring is a good time to review SC Department of Health and Environmental Control regulations for swimming pools and to make sure staff is properly trained and equipped. Abiding by these regulations and having staff trained in first aid, CPR and AED use will go a long way in making sure that pool facilities are safe and fun.

Having a variety of recreational facilities to choose from enhances a city’s quality of life. Identifying and managing risks associated with park and recreation programs and facilities will give resident and visitors the chance to enjoy these opportunities while keeping these assets from becoming municipal liabilities.