HARTFORD (AP) -- Local officials and outdoor enthusiasts urged Connecticut lawmakers on Monday to help protect municipalities from lawsuits over injuries that occur on some municipally owned lands.
They say large jury awards could lead to restrictions on access to public properties. The pleas follow a $2.9 million award last year for a bicyclist who was injured after hitting a gate on West Hartford land owned by a regional water and sewer authority.
New Haven attorney Michael Stratton, who represents the bicyclist who sued the Metropolitan District Commission in 2002, argued that cities and towns have a responsibility to keep public properties reasonably safe.
"It's not about sue-happy plaintiffs. It's about whether we're going to have a right to hold people accountable when they cause people injury," Stratton said. "It's changing the nature of people's rights. People don't understand they're giving up a significant right here."
Stratton's client, Maribeth Blonski of Rocky Hill, broke four vertebrae in her neck when she hit a steel gate on a trail near a reservoir in the Talcott Mountain Recreation Area. Stratton said the MDC was found liable for two-thirds of the $2.9 million award, or about $2 million. The authority has appealed the jury's decision.
Stratton said much of the award will be covered by the MDC's insurer.
The case has prompted an outcry from outdoor enthusiasts who fear the size of the award will cause the MDC and municipalities to restrict public access to such property.
"Two of Hartford's great assets are its parks and its proximity to miles of uninterrupted mountain forests. It would be reprehensible if the city or the MDC were forced to limit their public access because of the specter of lawsuits," Brendan Mahoney, a Hartford resident, wrote to the General Assembly's Environment Committee.
The panel heard testimony Monday on a bill that would provide the same protection from liability to municipalities that is afforded to private landowners who allow people to use their property for recreational activities, such as hiking.
"Access to trails and open space is becoming more difficult to obtain now, so it is important to preserve what we have and not force property owners to close their lands due to fear of being sued," wrote Amy Stegall, president of the horse council.
The Connecticut Forest and Park Association listed recent examples of recreational liability lawsuits that it says led to cities and towns limiting recreational activities on municipal land, or at least consider it. Besides the MDC case, the group cites Waterbury losing an $8 million verdict to a woman who was seriously injured after crashing into a metal bench while snow tubing in a public park. Middlebury is now considering closing a popular sledding area.
Thomas Gormley, the town's first selectman, told lawmakers on Monday that his municipality can't afford to fend off more lawsuits. "Our legal budget is through the roof," he said.