Management and Maintenance
Liability and Trail Insurance
Ownership of a recreational trail, whether by a government agency or a nonprofit organization, creates a number of liability considerations. The primary objective of rail-trail management should focus on trail-user safety and minimizing risks and liability exposures. Fortunately, many rails-trails and rails-with-trails are covered by city, county or state self-insurance policies, and public liability risks from trails are small compared to the liability risks of roads, playgrounds and swimming pools.
Similarly, private landowners who allow public access to their property—as when a trail crosses or abuts your property—are also protected by recreational use statutes in all 50 states. Under these statutes, no landowner is liable for recreational injuries resulting from mere carelessness if they have provided public access to their land for recreational purposes.
Different types of liability protection that apply to trail managers and adjacent landowners are discussed below. To read more about each type of protection, explore our full report on liability: Rail-Trails and Liability: A Primer on Trail-Related Liability Issues & Risk Management Techniques . Also, learn more about adjacent landowners and trails.
The best defense against injury or lawsuit is to design the trail for safety and develop a comprehensive management plan that includes risk management techniques. For basic design guidelines, consult the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials' (AASHTO) "Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities" for specific design standards and recognized "best practices" for the design and construction of multi-use trails.
The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) also provides respected guidelines for how the trail should be properly and safely marked. Develop a risk assessment and management plan in order to identify, resolve and record actions taken to avoid possible risks. The following guidelines are adapted from George Pring's article, "Land Trust Liability and Risk Management," from Exchange: The Journal of the Land Trust Alliance (1991).
- Provide leadership
Appoint a leader to take responsibility for the plan.
- Inventory hazards
Assess the entire corridor for obvious and non-obvious hazards like:
- Falls — Cliffs or embankments next to the corridor
- Impacts — Areas prone to rock slides and falling timber
- Environmental — Contaminants from environmentally hazardous materials that may also present health risks
- Roads — Unmarked intersections, adjacent traffic
- Inventory uses
Conduct a parallel inventory of how people will use the trail (bicycle, equestrian, motorized, etc.) and what types of accidents could result from each activity.
- Inventory the law
Have your attorney review your state's liability and protective laws, including Recreational Use Statutes and court cases involving trails.
Conduct regular inspections (at least once a year) to assess potential hazards. Keep records of your observations and courses of action.
Try to fix or reduce hazards by eliminating or isolating the problem. The trail may need to be rerouted to avoid possible conflict. Place warning signs on the corridor, and in trail maps and brochures, for any potential liabilities.
A sample "Trail Inspection Report" is available on Canada's Bruce Grey Trails Web site in the "Dealing with Risk Management" section on page 11.
Review page 10 of Rail-Trails and Liability: A Primer on Trail-Related Liability Issues & Risk Management Techniques to learn more about risk management techniques, and read our report, Understanding Environmental Contaminants: Lessons Learned and Guidance to Keep Your Rail-Trail Project on Track , to determine how environmental contaminants should be addressed in an environmental assessment or risk management plan.
Recreational Use Statutes
When a trail intersects privately owned land, residents may be apprehensive about the prospect of allowing public use of their property for recreation purposes. Luckily, landowners are offered protection under state recreational use statutes. Some states have even extended the statute's protection to cover public landowners. Recreational use statutes vary slightly from state to state and do not necessarily prevent landowners from being sued, but they do grant landowners basic protections.
Be sure to inform adjacent landowners that trail users wandering onto posted private property are considered trespassers under law. Sharing this information with concerned trailside residents, many of whom are probably unfamiliar with the protection they receive under the statute, will do much to alleviate their concerns about liability. It is strongly advised that you consult an attorney knowledgeable in this area to determine the current status of Recreational Use Statues in your state.
Read pages 78 in Rail-Trails and Liability: A Primer on Trail-Related Liability Issues & Risk Management Techniques ; for more information on rail-trails and recreational use statutes.
Insurance, although the last line of defense, is necessary for trail owners/managers. In most cases, the trail is owned by a public entity with an umbrella insurance policy that protects municipal activities and facilities. But when non-governmental organizations own trails, they should purchase a similar comprehensive liability insurance policy. Read more about trail insurance in Rail-Trails and Liability: A Primer on Trail-Related Liability Issues & Risk Management Techniques (pages 910).
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