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NEXT L.A. | The Next Wave: In-Line Lawsuits

When Skaters Fall, Cities Can Get Hurt

May 28, 1996|SHELBY GRAD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Imagine a day of in-line skating at the beach, the sun in your face and the ocean breeze blowing through your hair as you fly along the path. Then imagine hurtling face-first into the sand, barely missing the pair of reckless tandem bicyclists who swerved into your lane.

The popularity of in-line skates, which can propel people as fast as 25 to 30 mph, has escalated the congestion on the beachfront bike and skate paths and is prompting some cities to consider the potential liability they face when beach-goers hurt themselves.

Collisions, falls and other accidents occur with bruising frequency as pedestrians, skaters, bicyclists and even dogs crowd the narrow asphalt and concrete trails.

Huntington Beach in Orange County is seeking changes in a state government code that gives municipalities immunity from liability for "high-risk" recreational activities such as diving and climbing. The city's officials want in-line skating added to the list.

"I may be from the old school, but I think people should be responsible for their own conduct," Councilman Tom Harman said. "If you go roller-blading and fall down, that should not be the city's fault."

Cities along the coast of Los Angeles County have largely escaped the threat of lawsuits, at least so far.

In Santa Monica, a man who said he fractured his left ankle while skating backward sued the city unsuccessfully, said the city's risk manager Tom Phillips.

In Manhattan Beach, a woman who said she broke her elbows after tripping over electrical cables while skating on the bike path filed a claim for damages, but no lawsuit was filed, said Howard Fishman, that city's risk manager.

And in Hermosa Beach--where bicyclists, skaters and pedestrians all share the same trail--only one of the half a dozen recent claims against the city has been pursued. A woman who fell while skating sued, but the case was dismissed in a summary judgment motion.

"The judge found no basis for the claim because roller-blading, in and of itself, is a hazardous sport," said Bob Blackwood, Hermosa's director of personnel and risk management.

In Huntington Beach, four claims have been filed in the last two years by injured skaters. One of those cases, involving a woman who injured her wrists on the beach trail, is pending. Newport Beach also has a skating-related lawsuit pending.

Officials estimate that the claims represent only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of spills that occur annually along the coastline.

Huntington Beach's three-mile beach path was built 33 years ago as a service road for trash and delivery trucks. But over the years it has become one of the most popular spots for recreation.

Mishaps occur in large part because "wheel-bound" users and walkers travel along the trail at different speeds and for different reasons. Pedestrians tend to view the path as a sidewalk and don't always pay close attention to bicyclists and skaters, who see the trail as a road, officials said.

Besides collisions, skaters also face danger when sand drifts onto the route, covering up grooves and potholes that can trip them. The potential for injury is heightened, safety experts said, because many skaters don't wear helmets, pads and other protective gear.

A spill may result in only bruises and scrapes, but a harder fall can cause more severe injuries. A 1994 Consumer Products Safety Commission report found that skaters are especially susceptible to wrist and arm fractures.

Under existing law, cities can be held liable only if the injury was caused by public property left in a "dangerous condition." City attorneys said they reject many claims because the injuries in question do not occur because of government wrongdoing.

Still, some officials said they favor the added protection of city immunity from skate-related injuries.

"It's fine if people want to have a good time at the beach," Harman said. "But if they fall down, they shouldn't look around for someone with deep pockets to pay for it."

Harman said he recently discussed adding in-line skating to the "high-risk" activities list with Assemblyman Scott Baugh (R-Huntington Beach). A Baugh spokesman said the assemblyman hopes to introduce the amendment later this year.

Such a move is likely to draw a challenge from trial lawyers, who have fought previous attempts to classify ocean diving and mountain biking as "high risk."

"Adding to this list should not be an excuse for cities not to perform normal maintenance," said Joe Dunn, vice president of the Orange County Trial Lawyers Assn. "Often it takes litigation to remind municipalities to improve their maintenance and conduct."

Times staff writer Emi Endo contributed to this story.

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