By Mike Jiggens
HAVINGâ€ˆto appear in court as a municipality’s star witness in a
personal injury lawsuit is not a pleasant experience for most for most
sports turf managers, but many cases can realize a positive outcome if
certain risk and liability precautions are undertaken before, during
and after a typical season.
Alan Dore, manager of parks and cemeteries for the City of Hamilton,
Ont., outlined the importance of inspecting and maintaining sports
field infrastructure during the 22nd annual field day of the Sports
Turf Association in Brantford in September.
“The pre-season, during season and post-season inspection and documentation of horticultural maintenance practices are extremely important in defending a claim which can be quite significant in terms of cost to defend that,” he told more than 250 sports turf managers, lead hands and supervisors. “If the injury is catastrophic, such as a broken neck, the damages can be quite expensive.”
Athletic injuries are sometimes the result of poor field conditions, and the presence or absence of negligence will be determined by the municipality’s due diligence of its standards related to its conditioning practices.
“Record-keeping is a critical component of that,” Dore said, citing documentation of such data as inspection and maintenance logs and weather information usually become the focus of a claim. It is the responsibility of the turf manager, lead hand or supervisor to keep good records in the event of a court proceeding.
Those who have had to give testimony in court in the past know how much scrutiny such documentation receives, he said. Many sports turf managers tend to focus primarily on the horticultural maintenance practices aspect of the job and aren’t fond of the administrative work involved. However, the inspection of fields and documentation of all practices before, during and after the season are vital toward supporting a legal defence.
“I hope I haven’t scared all of you to the point where you might be considering another profession,” he quipped.
Dore suggested a number of steps sports turf managers can take to successfully defend against such claims. Conducting a review and documentation of field inventory and field types as well as making a visual risk assessment of each field is a good start.
The inspection of a baseball field, for example, should include an assessment of:
• the infield (including home plate, the bases and low spots)
• the outfield (including the condition of the turf, low spots and areas of ponding)
• the irrigation system (including leaking heads and heads which are set too high or too low)
• fence lines (including footings, holes in the fabric, missing tie wraps, tension wires and tile along the top rails)
• lighting systems (including poles, fixtures, anchor bolts and footings)
• players’ benches (including gates, fencing and footing)
• backstop (including the fence fabric, fence structure and broken welds)
• home plate (including its general condition, elevation, batter’s boxes and low spots)
• bleachers (including missing or damaged seats or backboards, and structural integrity)
• signage (including signage out of place and graffiti making signage illegible)
The same type of attention would be required for soccer and football fields with the addition of goalpost inspections for structural integrity, broken welds and footings.
When any deficiencies are observed, their condition should be recorded and repairs or replacement need to be scheduled in a timely fashion, Dore said.
Anything not reported as needing attention may not find its way onto a repair schedule, putting the municipality at risk of being negligent.
Developing a rental or park permit contract is another practice Dore recommended. Its terms and conditions should be reviewed periodically with a municipality’s legal staff to ensure all terms and conditions are adequate in relation to a field’s specific type of use. The terms or conditions of use need to be clearly stated and that insurance requirements are noted to help the municipality in its defence of a potential negligence claim.
One of the important aspects of the rental contract is a policy for rainouts, Dore said.
“That can go a long way in terms of when these types of personal injury claims occur, and that it’s clearly stated within your rainout policy that they (users) shouldn’t be on those fields under those certain conditions (ponding or water seeping from under foot).”
User groups should clearly understand when they sign a rental contract about how poor weather can severely damage a field and increase the chance for injury.
Dore outlined three value-added benefits of a risk management plan, in the areas of customer service, operating and annual budgets, and capital budgets.
Maintaining good relations with field user groups will help build trust between both parties, he said. Often, user groups are the first to report a deficiency to a field, especially when there is no municipal staff dedicated to the site. It’s much easier, however, when a specific deficiency has already been noted by staff and a date for its repair has been set. The caller can then be provided with this information, giving the user group the satisfaction of knowing appropriate action will be taken.
Such a strategy lets the public know that sports turf professionals care and that they are on top of things.
A good risk management program in which inspection-produced data is collected can result in the allocation or defence of budget dollars from an operating or annual budget perspective.
Once inventory is known and the components of a field are identified quantitatively, budget building or defending becomes more reliable and increases the credibility of the sports turf professional, Dore said.
When a field’s components are inventoried and its deficiencies are regularly noted, the data provides such information as unit costs for deficiency repair or replacement. Historical budget information is produced as a result which becomes effective in allocating or forecasting expenditures necessary in an annual budget. Typical unit repair costs are multiplied by the number of units in the inventory and then multiplied by the average number of historical deficiencies in a given budget to produce quantifiable measurements which are defendable when presented to municipal councils at budget time.
Dore said the tactic helps in the chances of maintaining a share of increasingly scarce budget dollars.
A capital budget plan of 10 years is another area which can benefit from good risk management data. This allows park planners and councils to get an idea of what infrastructure is forecasted to be replaced in the future as well as the associated costs.
Often, the costs of major replacements can reach beyond $200,000, depending on what needs to be replaced. Spread over a 10-year capital budget plan, large spikes in capital funding requirements in any one year can be avoided.
Dore said a good risk management plan forms the basis of good management practices and is beneficial in achieving customer satisfaction, budget management and supporting the advancement of the sports turf profession.