PIERRE, S.D. (Legal Newsline) – The South Dakota Supreme Court affirmed Oct. 3 that the city of Sioux Falls is immune from liability in a lawsuit filed by injured cyclist Robert Fischer.
The Supreme Court ruled state law protects local municipalities from being sued for negligence in cases involving outdoor recreational areas.
The court said that SDCL-20-9-20 states that “a political subdivision of South Dakota owes no duty of care to keep land used for outdoor recreational purposes safe or to warn of dangerous conditions.”
According to the ruling, Fischer was injured in June 2014 when he drove his bike over a natural drainage ditch in Kuehn Park in Sioux Falls that was hidden by grass.
Fischer argues that the city was guilty of gross negligence, noting that the law doesn’t exempt the city from injuries caused by “gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct.” However, Fischer’s May 2016 complaint only officially cites an allegation of negligence.
The Supreme Court ruled that negligence and gross negligence are not synonymous. It’s noted that “the requirements for alleging willful or wanton misconduct (i.e., gross negligence) are different than those for alleging negligence.”
When a plaintiff alleges simple negligence, he or she has to demonstrate that harm is possible. Plaintiffs alleging gross negligence must demonstrate that there is a “substantial probability of serious physical harm,” the court said.
City employees testified that they knew that the ditch that caused Fischer's injuries existed and it was often concealed by grass, the ruling stated.
However, the court found that Fischer only suggests that employees knew that “possible” harm could occur.
The court stated evidence suggested the city knew “its conduct posed an unreasonable risk of harm to the public (i.e., that the city was negligent)” but argued that the evidence was not strong enough to support a gross negligence claim.
Justice Janine Kern dissented, stating that the Circuit Court of the 2nd Judicial Circuit in Minnehaha County erred in granted summary judgment to Sioux Falls. She said the case should be reversed and remanded for trial.