May/June 2023 Issue
Also in this issue: State of PFAS in Wisconsin: Drinking Water Regulations and Testing Results | Coordinating Private Lead Service Line Replacement Programs to Maximize Impact
Wisconsin Court of Appeals Discusses Governmental Immunity for Personal Injury Claims in Non-Binding Decision
Storm B. Larson | 06.01.23
As the weather grows warmer and people spend more time outside, it is helpful to review the general rules that shield municipalities from liability for personal injuries that occur on public property. A recent decision from the Wisconsin Court of Appeals discussed this issue, and although it is not binding precedent, it serves as a good reminder of how courts analyze this issue.
In Harris v. Village of Ridgeland, Brandon Harris sued the Village of Ridgeland (Village) and others for personal injuries he sustained at a tractor-pull. The Village owned the property where the event occurred, and the Village’s Fair Association (Association) contracted with the Wisconsin Tractor Pullers Association, Inc. (Tractor Pullers) to put on the event. Tractor Pullers appointed an event manager who supervised “the conduct of the event and other officials necessary to conduct the event.” In addition, Association board members walked the grounds to monitor the event. The Association was also responsible for maintaining the grounds, but no written policies described what its obligations were. Testimony established that a few times per year, the board and other volunteers helped mow the lawn and cut weeds. For seating, the event used wooden benches that were built into a hill on the south side of the event field; there were no stairs or guard rails.
The accident happened while Mr. Harris was descending the hill after dark; the area was still wet from rain that morning. Harris filed suit and alleged that the Village was negligent in failing to properly inspect, repair, maintain, and light the aisles. The Village won summary judgment at the circuit court level because the court ruled the Village was entitled to governmental immunity under Wis. Stat. § 893.80(4). This ruling was affirmed. (Harris also brought claims against other defendants, but the discussion in this article will be limited to the Village.)
Harris appealed and argued that the “known and compelling dangers” exception to immunity should apply. This exception applies in circumstances under which an injury will almost certainly occur if the government does not act. The justification underpinning this exception is that the government has an obligation to respond to serious known dangers.
Wisconsin courts have developed a three-step test to determine whether the known and compelling danger exception applies. First, courts assess whether a compelling danger existed. Second, courts ask whether a government actor knew about the danger. Third, courts determine whether the government actor did anything to reduce the danger. The court of appeals Harris did not establish facts to show that the exception should apply.
The court of appeals rejected his argument, stating that there were no other reports of falls or injuries and that no complaints about unsafe conditions in the aisles had been previously raised. Furthermore, the court stated that, even assuming that the Village knew a danger existed, there was no clear response that the Village should have taken to mitigate the danger of slipping on the wet ground.
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