Millions of tax dollars are paid out by East Valley cities each year to people who were thinking of suing them — and city lawyers approved the payoffs because it is deemed cheaper to settle than to risk greater expenses from going to trial.
That amount, which has risen over time, may finally start to go down, thanks to a welcome decision last week by the Arizona Supreme Court.
The justices, in ruling about the immunity from lawsuits cities enjoy under a 1983 law, decided that such immunity also extends to injuries suffered by people visiting a free city park. This means taxpayers would not have to pay damages, or any settlements before trial, to those who should take reponsibility for their own conduct.
Gross negligence — leaving an open manhole unprotected by barricades and flashing lights, for example — would still be something about which an injured person may bring suit. But not looking where you’re going when you should have been — tripping over a crack in a sidewalk while rollerblading, for example — will be your own province.
Local city halls are full of stories of people receiving tens, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars for such slip-and-fall cases that clearly were the responsibility of the individual involved. Estimated amounts a city will have to pay out for such settlements are factored into city budgets months ahead of time, money that could be going to important city services.
If an action by government or a government employee amounts to a callous disregard of life and limb, then, as the justices ruled, they should be subject to lawsuits and, if found responsible, pay damages accordingly.
But running into a tree while sledding down a hill at a free city park — which is what happened in the Flagstaff case on which Monday’s decision was made — is not something for which government should be responsible.