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Fun or Liability?: Mom Talks Law

By Leondra Hanson

Q: In our backyard we have a trampoline and a large play system, and my kids love to have friends over to play. I want my kids' friends to enjoy spending time at our home, but I worry about being sued if someone gets injured. Should I have kids or their parents sign a disclaimer or liability waiver of some kind before I even let them play in our backyard? What can I do to minimize my family's potential liability?

A: Thanks to ever-increasing stories of lawsuits and personal liability, parents live in fear not only of children being injured at their home, but also of the seemingly inevitable resulting personal injury lawsuits. Unfortunately, just as you can never completely protect your child from the accidental fall, you can never completely shield yourself from the possibility of being sued. While a properly and carefully written liability waiver might offer you some protection, it would be no guarantee you'd avoid a lawsuit altogether. Plus, the prospect of asking friends and neighbors to sign a release before they spend time in our homes makes some of us a little uncomfortable, and I am loathe to recommend it as a matter of course. However, once you have decided to purchase this type of equipment, you should consider the following practical steps to help protect against liability.

Contact your insurance agent. Generally, a homeowner's insurance policy provides two important things - a defense and liability coverage - for instances where a person who is injured at your home sues you. In other words, the insurance company provides a lawyer to represent you in the lawsuit and money to pay a claim if you lose. However, you need to verify with your insurance provider that your policy does not have any exclusions related to play equipment that might prevent you from having complete protection in the event someone is injured. You should also consider your policy limits. Realistically, if you have a liability limit of only $300,000, you may not have adequate coverage for a situation where someone is seriously injured. Ask your insurance agent whether an umbrella policy might be appropriate. Such policies are relatively inexpensive ($100-$300 per year) and can substantially increase your coverage. Be sure to keep notes of your conversations, as well as any documents you get from your insurance company. According to St. Paul attorney Angela Beranek Brandt, "the single best protection you can have against personal liability is a good insurance policy, but people often neglect to understand exactly what their homeowner's insurance provides."

Communicate with parents. Talk to the parents of your kids' friends. Let them know you have play equipment and be sure they consent to its use. Better yet, make it a standard household policy that parents have been to your home at least once and have seen the backyard before the kids come over to play. The younger the children, the more important it is to make sure the parents are aware.

Safety check. Of course, install any equipment properly and follow all the manufacturer recommended safety standards. Make a kid-friendly list of safety rules about using the equipment. You can even get the kids involved by making a craft project out of creating the list. Post the rules on your refrigerator and/or near or on the equipment.

Consider building a fence. Most cities in Minnesota require swimming pool owners to put a gated fence around the pool in order to protect others from being accidentally injured. Although fencing requirements are not mandatory for play systems or trampolines, you may consider putting up a fence anyway - to be sure any children playing on the system are in your yard by your invitation and that you know they are there.

Relax and Enjoy. Finally, as Thomas Jefferson noted in 1825 (long before the advent of the trampoline), "How much pain have caused us the evils which have never happened?" So often we let the worries of life interfere with our enjoyment of it. If you have spent the time and money to install equipment for the kids, do try to have a little fun with it!

DISCLAIMER - The contents of this column are not legal advice. The information contained herein is intended to increase awareness and understanding of basic legal issues and to provide a starting point for the reader's reference. Legal columns like this one are not an appropriate substitute for contacting an attorney about your specific situation.

Twin Cities attorney Leondra Hanson, an instructor at Globe University/Minnesota School of Business, discusses the legal issues facing parents and answers your questions about the law and your life. If you'd like to ask Leondra a question, please submit it here.

You can also visit Leondra at her personal web log, Mommy Tracks, where she observes - sometimes humorously, sometimes seriously, but always honestly - life in the perplexing role of mother.

Categories: Advice, Ideas & Stories, Family,

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