Duluth unusually hard hit by lawsuits
DULUTH -- The city of Duluth stands out among other large Minnesota cities in recent years on being sued by people who were hurt or killed on park and recreation lands.
Most recently, Duluth has been pushed out in front with a pair of costly court settlements involving the death of an inline skater and an injury suffered by a volleyball teacher, according to a review of claims by the Duluth News Tribune.
"I can't recall a time when somebody was seriously hurt in a city park and they didn't sue," Duluth City Attorney Bryan Brown said.
In about three decades, Brown said, he's defended the city from claims that blamed it for children drowning in creeks to skiers hitting trees at Spirit Mountain. A claim from a golfer who was hurt when he fell down a set of stairs at a city-operated golf course is pending, he said.
Brown also recently asked the city's claims investigator to look into the death of a 21-year-old developmentally disabled man who drowned this summer off a city-owned Park Point beach. The man's family has yet to say whether it will seek damages for his death.
The city is just closing the case on a lawsuit it settled with the family of a 21-year-old woman who fell while inline skating in Leif Erikson Park off the Lakewalk in 1999 and died. The city agreed to make changes to the park and also paid her family $187,500.
A jury awarded a man $228,000 in February after he slipped, fell and broke three bones in his leg while teaching a volleyball class at Duluth's Washington Center gymnasium. The jury determined the city was responsible for water on the gym floor from a leaky roof. Others had complained to the city about the problem before the accident.
The two awards, totaling $415,500, are more than the total paid by Minneapolis, St. Paul, St. Cloud, Rochester and Mankato combined for injuries or deaths on their parks and recreation properties, said attorneys or claims adjusters in those cities.
Neither St. Paul nor St. Cloud paid anything for a lawsuit stemming from park property injuries, the News Tribune reported.
Rochester and Mankato paid $6,870 for 32 claims, said Stephanie Lake of the League of Minnesota Cities. The league provides liability insurance for Rochester and Mankato among other cities. Duluth, St. Cloud, St. Paul and Minneapolis are self-insured cities.
In total, the league paid about $1.1 million -- an average of about $600 per claim -- in parks and recreation claims in the past five years for all the cities it insures, Lake said.
Duluth stands out with its abundance of park and recreation properties, Brown said.
The city hasn't been successful in arguing to judges or juries that it's immune under a portion of state law for injuries on recreation properties. Efforts to get the Lishinski case dismissed under the immunity clause were ultimately turned down by the Minnesota Supreme Court.
City attorneys argue the immunity clause helps cities keep their recreational facilities open without fear of being sued every time somebody gets hurt.
"If you are going to get sued every time somebody slides down a sliding hill and gets hurt, you have to ask yourself, 'Do you want sliding hills or not?"' said Jan Peterson, a St. Cloud assistant city attorney.