In 2002 a woman attended a Fur Festival (hahaha) in Chadron, Nebraska. She stumbled on the Courthouse lawn and hurt her ankle, then sued. The city attempted to defend itself by hiding behind the "Recreation Liability Act" (RLA), and the state's Supreme Court said no: that public landowners are not covered by the RLA, only private ones. Before I go on, let me explain this RLA thing a bit.
In almost every US state there exists something generally called a "Recreational Land Use Statute," which Nebraska calls the "RLA." In effect, they say that if you let someone freely use your land for recreation you are exempt from liability. These statutes were created through the advocacy of fishermen, hunters, and other outdoors activities, with the intent to provide incentive for private landowners to allow the public to use their land for recreation. Most of these statutes are really old; some absolutely predating this whole public skatepark thing.
This means that if you build a bowl or a ramp in your yard and allow the public to freely use it, you are probably exempt from liability, i.e., cannot be sued (provided you are in a state that has said land use statute). Of course, if you have an obviously dangerous thing, say: like screws hanging out, you may not be covered, but some states' statutes are amazingly protective of private landowners, as demonstrated in the supporting case history (which are court decisions supporting or going against a certain statute or law).
Disclaimer: I'm no lawyer. However, rumor has it there are an abundance of them in the US, and these statutes are available on-line for free. Search for your state and "recreational land use statute" or something and chances are you'll find what applies to you. But I digress.
In many cases the states have modified these statutes to include similar protection from lawsuit for public landowners, meaning: as long as the city makes their land available for recreation they too are exempt from liability. In Nebraska's case, the legislature never actually made that specific elaboration to the statute, and it was assumed (and supported through several cases) that the public landowners would be covered.
This case allowed the Nebraska Supreme Court to take a sober look at the statute and say: no, it actually does NOT support this, and the prior cases were applied out of context. Therefore: public landowners actually have NO protection from liability afforded to private landowners as defined in the RLA.
This is serious business extending FAR beyond skateparks. In fact, this decision has nothing to do with skateparks, or even skateboarding. As it currently appears to stand, anyone who gets hurt on public land in the state of Nebraska can (and probably should) sue because the public landowners have nothing to protect them from lawsuit.
I say "should" because that's one evil method to ensure the Nebraska Legislature addresses this legal loophole ASAP when they reconvene in January, 2007.
In the meantime, the state's insurance carriers deemed skateboarding too dangerous to cover, and at least one city closed its skatepark as a consequence. In essence, this is similar to what happened in the 1970's, when insurance carriers for private skatepark owners jacked rates too high to make it feasible to keep the parks open. In fact, this actually hurts every recreational activity in the state of Nebraska; skaters are the first to get the shaft. As usual. Poor us.
In states like New Jersey there are statutes outlining liability protection for public landowners, and I suspect that the state legislature will either draft something like that for Nebraska, or modify the RLA to include public landowners.
We're researching this to determine next steps, and ways we can assist. We have a couple people in Nebraska, but could always use more. That's how SPS works: local advocates, working together. Get involved!
Here's the decision for those seeking a cure for insomnia:
Here's a link to the forum thread about this.