Compromise may give MDC, towns liability protection

A compromise reached Thursday should lead to approval today by the Judiciary Committee of a bill limiting liability for recreational accidents like the one resulting last year in a $2.9 million judgment against the Metropolitan District Commission.

It’s been on the wish list of municipalities for 15 years, and the bill has nearly 40 co-sponsors. But it was opposed by trial lawyers, so a bill limiting liability seemed destined to die today from inaction in the legislature’s Judiciary Committee.

But Rep. David Baram, D-Bloomfield, said a compromise reached with the trial lawyers should give municipalities and entities such as the MDC some protection from lawsuits arising from the recreational uses of public lands.

Towns still will face liability for the failure to properly maintain ball fields, basketball courts, swimming pools, sidewalks and other improved areas.

A court decision 15 years ago stripped municipalities of the same legal protection afforded the state and private land owners who open their property for free to hikers, bicyclists and other users.

“It’s not a new issue, but we’re dealing with all the attention to the MDC issue,” said Eric Hammerling, executive director of the Connecticut Forest & Park Association, which has been lobbying for passage.

Last year, the MDC, which is the Hartford’s region’s water authority, debated curtailing access to its 25,000 acres of watershed, including a heavily used 3,000-acre recreational area in West Hartford.

The MDC considered the closure after a woman collected a $2.9 million judgment for injuries sustained after riding her bicycle into a closed gate.

Ultimately, the MDC declined to close the recreational area, but the debate alarmed the large community of hikers, walkers and bicyclists who use the MDC’s extensive trail system.

“It is impossible to predict when, if ever, the number of similar damage claims will of necessity result in a dramatic shift in MDC policy,” the authority warned the Judiciary Committee in written public-hearing testimony.

The MDC verdict is on appeal. If upheld, Hammerling said, the fear is the MDC and other public entities could reconsider closing access to trails.

A broad array of groups submitted testimony backing the passage of the bill, including the New England Mountain Bike Association.

“Municipalities should not be penalized for providing opportunities for healthy recreation: they simply cannot afford to be dragged into court because they have opened up public property to recreation,” the association said in its testimony.

But the Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association told the committee that court decision 15 years ago was a well-reasoned analysis of why it was bad public policy to deny access to the courts to persons injured on public lands.

The intent of the original recreational immunity statute was to encourage private land owners to open their lands to the public. Municipal land already is owned by the public.

Baram said the trial lawyers association is dropping it objections in return for a more narrowly focused bill.

Today is the deadline for the Judiciary Committee to report out bills. Any legislation not approved by 5 p.m. is considered dead, and panel’s agenda has more than 50 items. It is scheduled to begin its all-day meeting at 10 a.m.