ASSE: Municipal Tort Liability Issues and Risk Control

June 12, 2002
Last year, New York City paid out $1 billion in awards for personal injury, most of them for "pain and suffering." In Ohio, anyone can sue anyone or any entity for $15. Welcome to Tort Liability 101.

"Think about it," ordered Kim Arnold, ASP, ARM, ALCM, CEO of KLA Consulting Inc. "Public entities touch people's lives every day. We have a lot going on and we have incredible exposures because of it."

What public entities need to do, said Arnold, is determine their exposures to risk and find ways to limit them. "After 17 years, I've never seen it not work," she added, of efforts to limit risk.

She asked audience members attending a session at the American Society of Safety Engineers Professional Development Conference in Nashville this week what their greatest fears were in terms of their municipal liability. One audience member noted, to much laughter, that one of his biggest concerns was traffic enforcement officers rear-ended stopped cars in front of them as they slowly moved down the street in search of expired meters.

"So, they get into an accident because they're looking at the meters to see if they're expired? An accident costs a lot more than the dollar in the meter," said Arnold.

Other audience members had more serious concerns, such as high-speed chases, fatalities on playgrounds and trenching accidents during city construction projects. Others talked about seemingly minor accidents that turned into expensive insurance claims.

"What ever happened to taking responsibility for ourselves?" Arnold questioned. "'I tripped and fell and it's the park services' fault and oh, by the way, I always wanted a boat.'"

Torte liability, she said, "arises from negligent or intentional infliction of damage to a person or property."

She talked about exposures to risk faced by human resources departments for cities, the road and street departments, the police and fire departments, and the parks departments. Concerns range from wrongful termination to unplowed streets, lead paint on old playground equipment and driving issues.

She made several suggestions to limit or reduce exposure to risk. The most basic, she said, was to keep eyes open when driving around the community. Look for missing stop signs, malfunctioning lights, uneven or icy sidewalks, obscured driveways and other problems and correct them as soon as time and money become available. Keep a maintenance log for all equipment, trucks, police cars and fire trucks and keep up with repairs, she suggested. Spend money on training for emergency services personnel, and keep up-to-date records. Document inspections, she said, and put everything in writing.

"If a sign is obscured by tree branches and the county tells you they'll maintain that sign, get it in writing," said Arnold. "Because if someone has an accident because they couldn't see that sign and they sue you and you say, 'The county said they'd take care of it.' The county is going to say, 'I don't remember saying that.'"

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