Civil liability immunity laws are, ostensibly, created to benefit the community, by relieving certain “classes” of individuals or segments of the economy from the threat of liability and to encourage commerce and recreational participation.
Over the years, Wisconsin has expanded immunity laws tremendously as the following demonstrates:
|895.475||Safety Inspection or Advisory Services||895.497||Child Safety Restraint Safety Services||895.527||Sports Shooting Range Activities|
|895.48||Emergency Medical Care||895.506||Obesity Claims||895.529||Trespassers|
|895.4802||Hazardous Materials||895.51||Donations of Food or Emergency Household Products||895.53||Tests for Intoxication|
|895.4803||Paternity Information||895.512||Access to Toilets||895.54||Notification of Release|
|895.481||Equine Activities||895.514||HIRSP||895.55||Oil Discharge Control|
|895.482||Ski Patrol Members||895.515||Equipment or Technology Donations||895.555||Anhydrous Ammonia|
|895.483||Emergency Response Teams And Sponsoring Agencies||895.517||Solid Waste Donation or Sale||895.56||DOT Handling of Petroleum-Contaminated Soil|
|895.485||Foster and Family-Operated Group Home Parents||895.52||Recreational Activities||895.57||Unauthorized Release of Animals|
|895.486||Insurance Fraud Reports||895.523||School Recreational Activities||895.58||Use of Special Waste Under Public Works Contracts|
|895.487||Employment References||895.524||Agricultural Tourism Activity||895.61||Asbestos Successor Corporation|
|895.488||Premises Owner||895.525||Participation in Recreational Activities||895.62||Castle Doctrine|
|895.489||Tenancy References||895.526||Participation in Snow Sports|
Of concern is that these laws have become so numerous that they have begun to strip away the hoped for benefit by eliminating accountability, leaving innocently insured people without a remedy for the laws.
Historically, and most commonly, Wisconsin’s immunity laws limit liability claims against municipalities such as cities, townships, as well as police and fire departments and schools. However, the laws now extend beyond government agencies to cover thirty-five different areas, from emergency medical services (895.48) to sport shooting ranges (Wis. Stat. 895.527) to access to toilets in a retail store or gas station (Wis. Stat. 895.512)
An example of the adverse consequences of the far-reaching immunity laws is the case of Ervin vs. City of Kenosha. In 1987, two young boys drown at a beach owned and operated by the City of Kenosha, Wisconsin. The beach had been staffed by four lifeguards at the time of the incident. Witnesses testified that the boys had been viewed playing near a known drop-off prior to going under. No warning was given to them that the area might not be safe. Witnesses further testified that the boys had struggled in the water for up to five minutes before a lifeguard entered the water to attempt a rescue. The lifeguard nearest the location of the drowning did not rescue either boy and was reported to have looked confused and panicked once she realized the boys needed help. Furthermore, it was found that the City hired lifeguards without conducting formal interviews or testing their skills. At the time of hire, the City failed to confirm whether the lifeguards could even swim or were certified in CPR. Following their tragic deaths, the parents of the two boys sued the City. Their case was dismissed by the lower court on the grounds that the City was immune from liability, pursuant to Wisconsin’s recreational immunity laws. (The Court found that the boys had been engaged in a recreational activity on a public beach. Therefore, recreational immunity laws applied.) The parents then appealed the case to the Supreme Court of Wisconsin.
In its decision, the Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling. The Justices stated that “the City is immune from liability under sec. 895.52(2), Stats. It is not liable for its negligence in hiring or failing to properly train the lifeguards, or for the lifeguards’ negligent performance.” According to the law, the City’s admitted failure to hire qualified lifeguards did not constitute a pursuable form of negligence, despite the fact that they knowingly and willingly hired inexperienced people to patrol their beaches, thereby offering a false and misleading sense of security to those present.
Some immunity laws go even further to disrupt the safety and security of innocent people. In 2015, the Wisconsin Senate created a bill intended to grant immunity to public and private campgrounds. With the passing of Wis. Stat. 895.519, any private campground patron may now prevented from pursuing a claim against a campground for injuries received, even those injuries resulting from a direct act of negligence on the part of the campground. According to the language of the statute, camping involves an inherent risk and those that engage in it assume the responsibilities associated with such risks, known or unknown. In addition, those properties damaged by fires started on the campgrounds are subject to the immunity laws and restrictions as well.
Although the immunity laws in the state of Wisconsin severely limit the ability to bring a liability claim against certain parties, they do not necessarily bar you from doing so. The laws are complex and must be carefully interpreted in context with the other statutory language and associated laws. It is always recommended to seek legal counsel to assist in liability claims. If you or someone you know has been injured, contact the law firm of Doar, Drill & Skow. Our exceptional attorneys are well-versed in Wisconsin’s laws and statutes and have been successfully winning claims against public and private parties for over 130 years.