Sledding Runs Into Legal Trouble

Andrew Sullivan —  Jan 6 2015 @ 1:17pm

Dubuque, Iowa is banning sledding in 48 of its 50 parks. And they aren’t the only ones:

Local governments can be held liable for injuries that occur in parks and other public areas—and with at least 20,000 sledding injuries occurring in the US each year, public officials have plenty of potential lawsuits to be wary of. For this reason, as the Associated Press recently reported, a growing number of US cities are banning sledding on public property. Following sledding accidents, one Nebraska family won a $2-million payout from the city of Omaha and another family secured a $2.75-million settlement from Sioux City, Iowa. Both cases involved individuals who survived their accidents but were paralyzed for life.

Wilkinson disapproves of being so cautious:

Americans are not so much unusually litigious as unusually fearful, and this fearfulness extends to the prospect of lawsuits.

The occasional jaw-dropping award in a personal injury or class-action lawsuit creates, like the occasional terrorist attack, a salient sense of pervasive danger. It’s not that Dubuque or Des Moines suddenly faces a new and extraordinary risk of getting sued into oblivion. It’s just that the risk, as small as it is, now looms larger in the imagination, becoming too great for the no-longer-bold American spirit to bear. Shutting down sledding hills is inspired by the same sort of simpering caution that keeps Americans shoeless in airport security lines and, closer to home, keeps parents from letting their kids walk a few blocks to school alone, despite the fact that America today is as safe as the longed-for “Leave It to Beaver” golden age.

As an American (and Iowan!) I find this sort of flinching risk-aversion profoundly embarrassing. We might like to locate the blame for things like sledding bans somewhere out there in the unruly tort system (and indeed Messrs Ramseyer and Rasmusen do), but we must face the possibility that the blame also lies within. Perhaps it’s better to be safe than sorry, but one wonders whether we won’t become sorry to have made such a fetish of staying safe.

Update from a reader:

Dubuque is actually my hometown. Most of the parks aren’t sleddable (is that a word?) anyway. Some are tucked away in residential neighborhoods and fairly flat. Those that aren’t don’t boast hills as much as rolling terrain or they are boxed by homeowner’s landscaping and fences. The only two with decent sledding are the two that the ban doesn’t include – Bunker Hill, which is part of the public golf course and Allison Henderson, where the sledding hills lead to what used to be the outdoor ice rink.

But the heyday of public sledding hills – in Dubuque anyway – ended long ago. I have an old home movie of my parents, uncles and cousins sledding at Bunker Hill one Christmas back in the early 1960s. It includes a shot of my Uncle Jimmy and my mother narrowly avoiding a collision with another sled piloted by a child. The hills resembled a ski resort crowded with adults, teens and kids. Conditions that really haven’t existed for years. Probably not since I was a young adult myself.

I wonder if the “uproar” is really just nostalgia rather than actual despair. Who takes their kids sledding anymore? What kids venture out of their homes to sled on their own?

When I was a kid, we were out on the hills all day and back out in the evening with back porch lights on at nearly every house to light our way. The proliferation of fenced yards in the late ’90s eventually closed down my old winter sledding heaven but there were few sledding in any case. The winter activities that survive are “sports” now like skiing and snowboarding. Activities that require expensive equipment, memberships or day passes.

Sledding was just fun. Maybe that’s why it faded away and became a liability?