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.