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Let Public Play On Public Land

Mon., Jan. 2, 1995, midnight

It didn’t even take a lawsuit.

Just the threat of litigation was enough to convince Spokane County officials to post “No Trespassing” signs on the three county golf courses to deter cross country skiers and other outdoor enthusiasts from using the public land for winter recreation.

Someone might hurt themselves. Someone might ski or skate on thin ice. Someone might sue.

And just the idea of that is enough to send officials cowering behind signs, enough to end a popular and reasonable use of golf courses in winter. Enough to make you sick.

It’s easy to see where the county’s fear is coming from. Some people in today’s society are all too eager to capitalize on random accidents for personal gain.

The most blatant example is the woman who won $2.7 million in punitive damages in her civil suit against McDonald’s for serving her a cup of toohot coffee. She spilled the coffee as she tried to get the lid off and suffered third degree burns. A jury agreed the restaurant was to blame.

With lessons like that, it doesn’t take too long to learn that personal responsibility means less today than before.

Still, there’s something deeply unsettling about “no trespassing” signs on public land. And posting the courses won’t prevent lawsuits; anyone can sue if they think they’ve got cause, or think they can make a buck.

County parks officials would have expended the same amount of energy posting signs at Hangman Valley, Liberty Lake and MeadowWood golf courses that said “Skate or ski at your own risk” and still would have limited their liability in the case of future lawsuits.

They might even try something radical. Like the Spokane city parks department, the county actually could encourage skiers to use the courses. Indian Canyon and Downriver golf courses have groomed trails that make it easier to ski.

Instead, the county has a risk manager, a job that didn’t exist 20 years ago.

Has the unfortunate trend toward litigation really made that job necessary? Are we so suit-happy that citizens’ rights to use public land for recreation must be compromised?

Ideally, no. Public land should be public, period.

Those new signs should be a warning to everyone. Take responsibility for yourself. If you spill coffee on your lap, look in the mirror for blame. If you ski into a fence, it’s your fault, not the county’s. If the weather has been warm and you’re unsure if the pond is frozen through, stay off the ice.

Sign or no sign.

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Anne Windishar/For the editorial board

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