An opinion released by the Michigan Court of Appeals on March 20, 2014, Nash v Duncan Park Commission.pdf, turns on issues both timely and timeless – a sledding accident, a 100-year-old trust, and the liability of well-meaning civic volunteers. Pulling in statutes and precedents dating back to the reign of Henry VIII and drawing a lesson from “The Merchant of Venice,” Judge Elizabeth Gleicher traces the origins of modern trust law and relates those principles to the case of 11-year-old Chance Nash, whose sled struck a snow-covered tree stump, killing him. He was sledding in a Grand Haven park managed by three volunteer trustees. The boy’s family sued the trustees for negligence in maintaining the park. Boiled down to its essence, the case warns civic volunteers who sit on boards, commissions and councils to take their jobs very seriously and purchase adequate insurance.
Anyone who read “Ethan Frome” in middle school would know that sledding is dangerous. However, modern society has a very low tolerance for risk. The death of a child sledding is no longer considered an accident. The family expects to find fault and will sue whoever is responsible for the venue where the incident occurred. That is why children’s playgrounds no longer have jungle gyms, tall slides and large swings. They have low plastic contraptions that are nearly impossible to fall off of and cushioned ground covers so a rug rat who manages to fall will not get any bruises.
Duncan Park, in Grand Haven, Michigan, was established by Martha Duncan in memory of her late husband, in 1913, for the residents of the city. It was managed by three trustees and maintained by a groundskeeper. Due to a heavy snow fall, the offending stump was not visible and Chance Nash ran into it while sledding. Chance’s family claimed that the groundskeeper should have removed the stump to avoid injuries to persons sledding in the park and the trustees should have better supervised the groundskeeper and the condition of the premises. Because the court found that the trustees managing the park were not cloaked with governmental immunity, a negligence suit against them was allowed to go forward. The moral to be drawn is that anyone assuming a position of authority over an activity or premises must take the responsibility seriously and provide competent supervision.
It is gratifying to be invited to serve on a board of trustees or directors. Meeting with a group of like-minded citizens can be a pleasurable break in the business of work-a-day living. However, it carries very serious, although unpaid, responsibilities. The next post, No Safety in Numbers, will discuss some of these responsibilities and how a candidate for a volunteer board should approach the job.
John B. Payne, Attorney
Garrison LawHouse, PC
Dearborn, Michigan 313.563.4900
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 800.220.7200
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