The Lewis County Board of Legislators in their headlong rush to impose ATV riding on the entire county appears to have left taxpayers exposed to a big liability hit.
New York State General Obligations Law protects property owners, including municipalities, from liability exposure from recreational activities.
If someone allows a recreational activity such as snowmobiling to take place on their property, the General Obligations law, broadly speaking, exempts the landowner from liabilty arising from in this example, a snowmobile accident.
The major exception to this exemption is if the property owner charges the user for the privilege of using the property.
The Lewis County Board of Legislators has chosen to charge a trail permit fee for using ATV trails on Lewis County Reforestation Land. In doing so, the Legislators have failed to live up to their duty of protecting county taxpayers and have essentially thrown fiduciary responsibility to the wind. By charging a permit fee for the ATV trails, Lewis County has removed a layer of liability protection and has put every taxpayer in the county at extreme financial risk.
A record personal injury case was recently decided in favor of an off duty policeman who brought suit against the State of New York after being injured while driving an ATV across state land. The off duty officer won a $14.8 million dollar lawsuit, which by the way is about $5 million dollars more than currently resides in Lewis County's General Fund. Importantly, the State lost this case and the State was not even charging for the trail. Are you ready to fork over more tax dollars so a limited number of people can make a buck off from ATV riders?
It must be noted that the driving force behind the ATV trail effort has been Legislator Rick Lucas who conceivably stands to gain financially from this effort. This is even after he was told in a letter from the Chairman of the Lewis County Ethics Board that he must recuse himself from this issue. Recuse means to completely separate oneself from an issue, not merely abstain from votes while continuing to influence the direction of events, as is the case with Mr. Lucas.
This is a sweet deal. The taxpayers take the risk while a few people like Rick Lucas look to gain.
Not just the taxpayers appear to be at risk. The property owners that have agreed to allow ATV trails across their property as part of Lewis County's so called trail system may also be at increased liability risk due to Lewis County's actions. Specifically, under Lewis County's ATV Trail system, property owners that allow ATV trails across their property receive free trail permits. These free permits are a form of compensation and likely will cause the landowners to lose liability protection that they would otherwise have under the General Obligations Law.
Lucas and his posse will talk about Lewis County's liabilty insurance and the ATV Clubs insurance as a means to deflect this cricism. Ask yourselves this question- Do you feel confident that insurance companies will cover claims when push comes to shove in light of Lewis County's
irresponsible behavior? A high ranking Lewis County official recently admitted to me that Lewis County understood the risk involved in losing the protection of the General Obligations Law and decided to charge the permit fee anyway.
The most important aspect of the Board of Legislator's job is looking out for the County's finances.The Board of Legislators has failed in their fiduciary resonsibilty and put taxpayers in harms way in their rush to appease a few loud voices and special interests, among them Mr. Lucas.
We are not in good hands.