Safe skateparks are a top priority for anyone involved with skateboarding. Nobody wants a dangerous skatepark, and certainly nobody wants to see local youth exposed to unnecessary risk.
Although this section talks about legal issues, it should not be considered legal advice. The intent is to provide an overview on liability and risk so that advocates can better understand the issue on a conceptual level.
Skateboarders accept a certain degree of risk. Learning new tricks is part of the fun, and nobody picks up a new trick on the first try. There are spills. For most skaters that are trying new tricks, falling is the norm and landing the trick is the exception. As a result, one of the most important skills a skater learns is falling safely. Skateboarding injury studies reveal that one-third of skateboarding-related emergency room visits are from skaters with less than a week experience, (American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons). These new skaters haven’t learned the techniques for falling properly.
In 2001 there were 12,459,000 casual skateboarders in the United States. In 2002 there were 50,000 emergency room visits for skateboarding-related injuries. This represents an injury rate of about 4% annually, (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2002).
Of those injuries, the most common are sprains, fractures, and abrasions occurring at the extremities. Wrists and ankles are the most common injuries, though most hospitalizations involve a head injury.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission stated in 2001 that when compared to other sports like basketball and football, skateboarding is relatively safe.
Risk to skateboarders comes from a variety of sources. Irregular surfaces and vehicular traffic are the two most common reasons for falls resulting in injury. With the rise in popularity of longboards and cruisers, there has been an increase in accidents resulting from too much speed. Casual skateboards are often attractive to skaters with little experience because they are not “trick” boards and somewhat easy to ride. This can create a false sense of security and introduce the new skater to situations they have no experience to handle safely. For many people, longboarding is a distinctly different discipline of skateboarding. Longboarders do not tend to use skateparks, though a new skatepark will likely “convert” some longboarders to skatepark patrons.
Liability is the introduction of risk based on a lapse in responsibility. Liability occurs if the City owns or creates a hazardous attraction and makes no effort to communicate those hazards to the public or enforce safe access and usage. If a public facility is not maintained to an acceptable standard, the city is at risk legally if an injury occurs. Naturally, anyone can sue for any reason, but the degree of financial risk that the city is exposed to is largely a result of what the city did or did not do to create a safe environment.
For example, a city has a small skatepark featuring steel ramps on an old tennis court. The ramps have not been adequately maintained, though most of the local skaters and the city believe the park is good enough to use safely. When a skateboarder cuts herself on a rusty piece of the ramp, her parents are subject to financial damages in the form of an emergency room visit, so the parents sue the city to recoup those damages. The lawyers determine if the city was liable, (the accident was the result of inadequate maintenance), or if the skater was responsible, (the facility was maintained to an acceptable standard and the injury was the result of that person’s deliberate actions).
Most towns and certainly all cities have a risk assessor on staff. This person, a lawyer, considers where and how the city is exposed to legal action. Risk assessment is an inconsistent science, and two identical skateparks may have very different approaches to policy and maintenance based on how they interpret the risk that those skateparks introduce. There are no risk “standards” for skateparks.
With a lack of standards, we see skatepark policy and design constraints vary widely across the nation. Some states require that all skatepark elements and structures be less than 3-feet tall. Some states require full joint protection, (elbow pads, knee pads, helmet, and wrist guards). Some states don’t require anything. There is no indication that these policies have reduced lawsuits against those communities, but there is every indication that some of these policies displace skaters that are finding more compelling terrain “in the wild.” Skatepark designs and policies meant to mitigate risk vary widely from community to community and from state to state.
Some states consider skateboarding an inherently hazardous activity. While this may sound like bad news to the average skatepark advocate, there is real value in this for skatepark advocates. When skateboarding is considered “hazardous,” the state declares that skaters understand the inherent risks in skateboarding and find those risks tolerable. This removes a layer of liability to the city because any common skateboarding injury is legally defined as an acceptable and inherent risk that cannot be avoided.
Many states recognize skateboarding in some legal way, while others do not. To add to the confusion, each county and municipality can create their own ordinances that seek to protect the public and the city from lawsuits. Skaters everywhere are familiar with these laws. Skateboarders routinely get tickets in towns that have no skateparks yet appear to have ample resources for enforcing “no skateboarding” laws.
When investigating your state’s handling of skateboarding in recreational areas, you’ll want to look within your state’s recreational use statute (RUS). The RUS is where most liability concerns are covered for landowners, whether they are governmental or not, that provide public recreation.
The Parks and Recreation Magazine published a great article in 2009 about skatepark liability. This magazine is a respected source of information for Parks professionals and published by the NRPA (National Recreation and Parks Association).
The original article can be found here:
The author, James C. Kozlowski, J.D., Ph.D., is an attorney and associate professor in the School of Recreation, Health, and Tourism at George Mason University in Manassas, Virginia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Archives of his law review articles may also be browsed here: http://mason.gmu.edu/~jkozlows
Recreational Use Statutes in most states read something like this: If a premises is freely open to the public for recreational purposes and a person is injured while using the premises for a recreational purpose, the landowner has no duty to that user to keep the premises safe. This is basically the passage that skatepark advocates use when addressing liability questions.
It is important to note that recreational user is a person to whom permission has been granted to recreate on those premises. For skateboarders, this means that the RUS would not apply to owners of property where skateboarding is not invited, and explains why property owners (and their representatives) have a responsibility to kick skaters out of places where it’s not appropriate. Of course, skaters routinely skate all over the place for lack of appropriate places to go, so the clearest solution to liability concerns is always a public skatepark.
Recreational Use Statutes:
A state-by-state inventory of laws pertaining to skateboarding would be handy, but these codes are often difficult to find and understand. In most cases they simply don’t exist. Instead, here are a few ordinances and codes that are often talked about:
CALIFORNIA has some of the strictest regulations for skateparks in spite of being the birthplace of modern skateboarding. For years California skateparks were supervised and gated. Helmets, knee pads, elbow pads, and wrist guards were required for all users… even those individuals in the skating area that weren’t physically riding a board. In the heat of a Southern California summer, wearing knee and elbow pads is very uncomfortable and restricts movement. Some argue that these requirements have led to more injury than they’ve prevented, but that’s difficult to prove. These laws are enforced less frequently as cities are becoming more comfortable with the lack of lawsuits they once expected. Also, given the stiff nature of fines for infractions, many skaters simply didn’t use the skateparks because the cool, shaded parking garage didn’t require them, for example.
California’s Recreational Use Statute
INDIANA Code 34-13-3-3 (5) states that the government agency or employee is immune from liability due to the design, construction, control, operation, or normal condition of an extreme sport area (e.g., skatepark), if all entrances to the extreme sport area are marked with a set of rules governing the use of the skatepark, a warning concerning the hazards and dangers associated with the use of the skatepark, and a statement that the skatepark may be used only by skateboarders and other appropriate users. This does not relieve the government from liability due to lack of maintenance provided that the skatepark is in a reasonable condition.
NORTH CAROLINA defines skateboarding as a hazardous recreational activity. There is an excellent legal review written by James Kozlowski, J.D., Ph.D. that outlines legal immunity laws as it pertains to skateboarding. There is specific mention of North Carolina’s treatment within. North Carolina’s skateboarding-specific code can be found here.
TEXAS supports limited liability for skateboarding in its Civil Practices and Remedies Code.
WASHINGTON and OREGON both present very liberal approaches to skatepark policy. Both states recognize that skateboarding is inherently hazardous and that the city should garner no additional liability for providing free, accessible recreational space to its residents. These laws encourage governmental and private land-owners to open their properties for public recreation without fear of being at risk should someone get hurt. Nearly all public skateparks in these states recommend helmets, but very few require them.
Washington: RCW 4.24.210
There are also some interesting municipal codes regarding skateboarding and skateparks here.