Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Liability Concerns Are Stealing Our Fun

Stephen Vance, Editor

In recent months I have seen and heard many complaints by residents directed at council or staff that really should be directed elsewhere, and liability concerns and the insurance industry is a good place to start.

Whether it is frustration about stepped up enforcement of Meaford’s sign bylaw, anger over an attempt to surround park equipment with orange snow-fencing in the winter months, or restricting the seating area for the fireworks display in Bognor, while those frustrated direct their frustration at members of council or municipal management, the reality is that many of the policies put in place in recent years are a response to the need to limit liability as much as possible.

Naturally, insurers pressure municipal governments to go to great lengths to limit potential liability, and as a result it can feel as if we have been burdened with additional layers of rules and regulations – because we have.

A toboggan hill is a perfect example. In the old days, we would find a hill and fly down on our toboggans without a care in the world, but these days municipal governments don’t really want you doing that on property they own, because if there is an accident, the municipality could be liable, and the insurance company would definitely prefer to not pay out settlements that could be avoided with proactive policies.

Gone are the days when you could simply post a sign declaring ‘Use at Own Risk’ and absolve yourself of any liability resulting from the actions of others.

Of course it is frustrating for residents who just want to have some fun.

I have been hearing about stepped up enforcement of Meaford’s sign bylaw in recent weeks, and while some might not like the fact that they now have to submit some paperwork and pay a fee in order to plunk a sandwich board sign on a sidewalk, the fact is that such a bylaw has been on the books for a long time. When I was manager of the farmers’ market some years ago, I recall going through the process and paying the fee at the start of each farmers’ market season so that we could erect a few sandwich board signs on market days. The fact that others haven’t paid the fee is simply due to a lack of human resources to enforce the bylaw properly, but in recent years Meaford has slowly bolstered its bylaw enforcement capabilities, and some folks aren’t impressed.

In contrast to the toboggan issue, I think the sign bylaw makes a lot of sense. If not for an enforceable sign bylaw we could see our sidewalks and street corners littered with signs of all sizes, blocking the view of motorists, and creating trip hazards for pedestrians. So the sign bylaw proactively solves a problem that could create a real hazard, not to mention an unsightly downtown.

So back to stealing our fun. The attempt to shroud our park equipment with snow fencing for the winter months in order to prohibit use of the equipment and thereby limiting liability was met with anger and frustration from residents, and the municipality quickly pulled the fences down. But I think we will see more and more of these sorts of issues in the years to come as insurance companies look out for their bottom line.

While I was in Bognor on Canada Day, I heard the frustration of organizers about the fire department limiting the seating area this year for the fireworks. I haven’t heard of anyone getting injured at the Bognor fireworks over the years, but somebody somewhere must have, and then insurance companies put the pressure on to ensure that municipalities clamp down on such events.

Much of the pressure on municipalities to limit liability makes a lot of sense, but at times I think the response to liability concerns reaches too far. I know it is cliche, but back in my day, we rode bikes without helmets, cruised around in cars without seatbelts and our parent smoking with the windows up, and it is easy to say we all survived, but the reality is that of course there are incidents from time to time. But I have a hard time accepting that as a result of an incident here or there we all have to adjust the way we do things when it comes to leisure activities.

My having a hard time accepting the imposition of rules where I feel there are none needed doesn’t mean that I am right – obviously some policies are important and make sense, but I think we need to find a better way of dealing with other types of potential liability in order to maintain a balance between protecting the municipality from potential liability, and the ability to simply have some fun.

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